Allan Massie: Legalise drugs to win the war

Current laws make criminals of many people and fail to curb drug use. Picture: Toby Williams
Current laws make criminals of many people and fail to curb drug use. Picture: Toby Williams
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Decriminalisation would allow the state to set manufacturing standards and collect taxes, writes Allan Massie

Every week, people appear in sheriff courts all over Scotland charged with drug offences. Sometimes they are in possession of drugs for their own use. Sometimes they are charged with supplying them to others, often acquaintances, friends or members of their own family. They are, I suppose, dealers, if only in a small way, though they may also have closer connections to organised drug crime, which is, after all, a big and profitable business.

Occasionally a big shot is arrested. Assets are seized and charities, sports clubs etc may benefit from the distribution by the state of the profits of crime. Most of those who come up before the courts seem, however, to be small fry, often the smallest of small fry. They acquire a criminal record because possession of certain named drugs is illegal.

Vast numbers of people – hundreds of thousands, millions probably – habitually or occasionally use these same drugs, but are fortunate enough not to be arrested and charged with possession. Everybody knows that drug use is common, that, for instance, City traders snort cocaine and drugs are passed round the table at dinner parties. Newspaper columnists write of their own drug use, and do so with impunity. The vast majority of drug users , at all levels of society, shrug their shoulders at the law, which they probably regard as ridiculous, if also potentially oppressive.

At this point anyone writing on the subject should make his own position known. Alcohol, happily legal, was my drug. It brought me much pleasure and did me great harm till I gave it up almost 20 years ago. A long time ago, I smoked a little cannabis and at university occasionally took a pep pill, trade name Drinamyl, which combined an amphetamine with a barbiturate. In those days you could buy it over the chemist’s counter and it was good if you wanted to stay up all night writing an essay or playing poker. But I have no experience of cocaine or heroin or any of the many varieties of pill available now. My drugs in old age are caffeine and nicotine, both legal. So my interest in the subject is, in the exact sense of the word, disinterested.

It is evident that drugs can be harmful. They may provoke or induce psychotic episodes. They may do long-term damage to the brain. They may result in early death, and addiction may be painful, distressing, altogether horrible, not only for the addict but also for his or her family.

All this is undeniable, but the same may be said of alcohol, which can have precisely the same results, and, of course, people who have committed acts of violence under the influence of “drink taken” also provide business for our sheriff courts, week after week, year after year. But nobody is charged with possession of alcohol, unless the bottles have been stolen, because alcohol is a respectable drug and, as our national poet declared, “Freedom an’ Whisky gang thegither”. Any attempt to ban alcohol would meet with fierce resistance and, if successful, would unquestionably have dire consequences. Prohibition was imposed on the American people in the 1920s, to the benefit of Al Capone and other mobsters. Organised crime profited and the consumption of liquor, often of a dangerous quality, rose.

We have had a comparable experience here. For more than half a century now the government has been pursuing a policy of prohibition, directed not at alcohol, but at various drugs, according to how they are classified. Governments have at times spoken of a “war on drugs”. It’s a war that has been lost. It has failed to curb drug use. The individuals who appear in our sheriff courts are like the stragglers who have fallen behind an advancing army and are easily picked off by the forces of order. Meanwhile, despite the publicity given to “major drug hauls”, the criminal “Godfathers” continue to do very well, thank you, and their chief problem is how to launder their handsome profits.

Scotland’s newest, and most surprising, elected politician, the Ukip MEP David Coburn, is not someone with whom I am likely to agree on much. But when he says he would “probably decriminalise drugs” because the present law “breeds crime”, and he thinks drug use should be treated as a “health problem”, he is surely right.

There are two arguments to be made against our present drug laws; and they are both good. The first is philosophical; that they represent an unwarrantable restriction of personal liberty; that it is not the business of the state to tell us what we may or may not consume so long as this does not directly harm others. In practice, such libertarian arguments usually have to be shaded at the edges, an example being the law relating to abortion, which qualifies a woman’s right to control her own body by imposing a time limit on terminations of pregnancy. But in general the libertarian argument is sound, and should be respected.

The second argument is practical. The war on drugs has been lost. It “breeds crime”. Supply has not been curtailed, let alone choked off. The laws prohibiting drug use are widely disregarded. Consequently, people who are otherwise law-abiding view the law with hostility and contempt. This is not a desirable state of affairs.

Decriminalisation would be good. It would take us back to how things were in the Victorian age, when opium derivatives such as laudanum were as widely available as gin and whisky. But legalisation would be better still, since it is possible to control the quality of legal drugs. Legally distilled gin is less damaging than bathtub gin; in those states in India where alcohol is prohibited, people are always being killed by drinking illicit stuff, just as happens with drugs here today.

Furthermore, if you legalise drugs, you can not only set health standards that manufacturers must abide by, but you can also tax them just as you tax alcohol and tobacco today. It’s amazing that governments have missed such an obvious means of raising revenue, and instead prefer to pursue their costly and ultimately hopeless war on drugs.

At the time of the agitation for parliamentary reform in the 1820s, there was a famous cartoon which showed a lady, called Mrs Partington, trying to push back the Atlantic with a broom. The war on drugs sees Mrs Partington at it again.