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by Hakan Ustabas,
A recent petition in favour of decriminalising cannabis in the UK has reached well over 200,000 signatures. In response to this, a Parliamentary committee discussed the issue. However, the government released a statement saying that there “are no plans to legalise cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities.” Their position highlights the unfortunate – and frankly embarrassing – position that Western states have clung dogmatically onto for decades. It is time that Parliament decriminalised drugs, precisely so that “the harm to individuals and communities” can be properly addressed.
My first argument will be brief, but nevertheless principled. On what grounds can I justly imprison a man for doing something which is of no harm to me? I imagine that most people would be disgusted – and rightly so – if homosexual activity was punishable through imprisonment as it was in this country in the last century. Why is it that we pass moral judgement on the activities of others when they do us no harm by them? This is a point which I think must always be borne in mind.
As for practical arguments in favour of decriminalisation, there are many. Firstly, it is a simple fact that making drugs illegal has a negligible effect on the total consumption of narcotics. Data from The Guardian states that one in three adults in the UK have used illegal drugs. This was a four percentage point increase in use since 2008, yet punishments have become no softer. If an argument in favour of prohibition is to be made, then the bare minimum is that the policy does something to achieve its goal of reducing consumption. On this ground it has clearly failed.
Not only does the threat of imprisonment fail to deter the general population, actual imprisonment is incredibly counter-productive for drug users. In the last year, not one prison in the UK remained free of illegal drug use. Imprisonment simply ignores the problems for those who are addicted to drugs by leaving them without medical help in a scenario where they are pressured into taking even more. This leads to a revolving door situation – offenders are released, continue to take drugs, and are convicted yet again.
The fixed cost of imprisonment stands at a staggering £119,000, with an additional £40,000 per year, per prisoner in running costs. Naturally, those behind bars do not have the opportunity to pay this sum, and so it falls on the taxpayer. Transform, a pro-legalisation charity, has provided data which shows that over the last decade, the UK government has wasted £100bn in its failed attempted to tackle drug use. By contrast, the entire state education sector has a budget of only £89bn. This begs the question: why should the taxpayer be forced to pay for a failing policy when there are more pressing alternate uses?
The clear alternative to the catastrophic side-effects of current policy is the decriminalisation of drugs. Opponents will argue that this will induce more people to take drugs who may otherwise not have done. While it is true that some people will be influenced by legalisation, it is also true that many people take drugs precisely because it is illegal. Regardless of what the net effect would be, the harmful consequences of prohibition outlined above show that the cost of a few more drug users (if any) would be negligible compared to the gains made by decriminalising.
In addition to the tax revenue saved by no longer investigating, prosecuting, and imprisoning drug users, large amounts of tax revenue would be gained through legalisation. The government would be sensible in applying an indirect tax specifically to each type of drug. This would result in two positive outcomes. Firstly, only the people who choose to take drugs will pay the cost of drugs, rather than the taxpayer body as a whole. Secondly, the tax levied on drugs could be calculated to reflect what economists refer to as the ‘negative externality’ of the drugs. In other words, all associated costs of drugs such as NHS costs would be pre-paid for.
It is through this funding that effective rehabilitation schemes can be created. Tax on drugs can be spent on programmes to help people who are addicted to drugs, and pay for the medical attention that they need. Rather than suffering in silence for fear of legal persecution, those who cannot control their use of drugs will be able to come forward and get their life back on track. For this reason, while recreational drug use may increase, I assert that the rate of long-term addiction would decrease.
A lesser stated fact would be that the quality of the drugs would increase if they were legalised. At present, drugs enter the economy through criminal gangs, who can use illegal tactics to increase their profitability. By contrast, if drugs were legal, entrepreneurs and corporations, who are subject to consumer protection law, will be held accountable for their products. No longer will people die from ingesting a pill which was misrepresented to them, because regulated corporations cannot disappear in the way which drug-dealers do.
I find it amazing that 45 years since the ‘War on Drugs’ was first declared, despite not winning a single battle, the state has not yet given up. The human, economic, and social costs of prohibition are astounding. The policy has been proven simply not to work. And yet, we have a real, practical, and progressive alternative. Regardless of whether someone uses drugs or not, individuals and their communities stand to gain from decriminalisation. 45 years ago, Western governments made a horrific mistake. There is no reason why they should continue to make it today.