Just Say Yes, Dave

11 May 2011

When David Cameron was a backbench MP he condemned the "abject failure" of the War on Drugs. And when he campaigned for the Troy leadership he said it was time for "fresh thinking and a new approach" to drug policy. He correctly noted that "Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades." While a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee he said the then-government should "initiate a discussion" at the United Nations to consider "alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma."

There are many things one could say to mark the anniversary of his arrival in Downing Street and many of them would be fine and good things indeed. So let’s remember that, thus far, Cameron’s government has been a disappointment in this area. 

Britain will send a representative to Vienna next week for the latest international meeting at which global drug policy will be agreed upon. I suppose it is too late to hope that the Cameron who campaigned for his party’s leadership will re-emerge to advocate a more sensible approach than the current madness. Like other would-be reformers before him, he’s a victim of government-capture. That and the troublesome headlines legalisation would produce. Drugs are not the place for boldness. Or leadership. Alas.

The Economist has a magnificent and blistering leader on the subject this week.

[T]he war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.

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Indeed. This is more than just a question of personal freedom (though that’s an important consideration too) it’s also a policy, insisted upon by the developed world, that immiserates large parts of the developing world. A sensible western approach to drug policy is also a question of international development. Without the rule of law, state-building is difficult and the rule of law is all but impossible to apply when a territory becomes a producer of narcotics.

None of this troubles the Drug Warriors who insist all that needs to be done is to keep pounding, only harder this time. That’s not a luxury available to the developing world and any crude utilitarian calculation must conclude that millions would be better off even if legalisation were to produce millions more users in the developed world. (This, on the available evidence, seems unlikely too though there might be a sharp, if perhaps temporary, increase in drug use in the years following legalisation.) Nevertheless, western drug policies are essentially a tax on poorer nations. Is it a surprise that, increasingly, producer countries are losing patience with consumer territories?

In case after case and no matter which way you choose to look at the issue, prohibition and all that comes with it is responsible for creating or at least exacerbating many of the problems associated with drug use. Not all those problems will melt away with legalisation but they may become easier to manage. Cheaper too.

Doubtless some of the Drug Warriors are well-intentioned. Others, of course, are authoritarians and puritans happy to peddle lies if that’s what’s required to maintain control. Still others seem wickedly keen on widespread capital punishment for drug users and sellers. Happily (most of the time) these latter scolds are more often found in comment boxes than in parliaments.

It’s hard to find any measurement by which one could conceivably consider the drug war a success. And yet it persists, nowhere more wickedly than in the United States. Repeated failure means nothing and certainly cannot be grounds for a change of plan. Instead one more heave will bring victory this year and if not this year then next year but certainly the year after that or, in the worst case scenario, within the next decade or…

So, how about it Dave? What happened to the sensible fellow who sat on the backbenches and still seemed sensible when he was running for the Tory leadership?

Whole Economist editorial here.I agree with every word.

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Show comments
  • Steve Rolles

    For those posters interested in how a post-prohibtion system for regulating drug markets, availability and use could function, please see Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s 2009 publication ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’. It is available as a pdf ( ) and offers a detailed discussion of the theory and practice of regulating drugs so as to minimise the harm they cause – both to users and wider society.

  • Steve Rolles

    The excellent Economist editorial you cite is actually from 2009.

  • Malcolm Kyle

    As laudable as the attempt at reducing the consumption of any recreational or addictive substance might be, by attempting to reduce temptation, prohibitionists also remove choice and therefore eliminate the possibility of the individual choosing between right and wrong. Instead, the ‘right’ choice is imposed, thus replacing personal (and civic) virtue with the impossible-to-enforce ‘virtue by fiat’. Granted, certain drugs, or even particular sports and sexual practices, may have the potential to cause self-harm, but to curtail a persons unalienable rights, including the right to compromise one’s own health, is to embark on an un-ending and descending spiral towards the assured destruction of our economy and cherished, civic institutions.

    Prohibitionists often express the belief that the resulting suffering and mayhem that their policy engenders is in no way connected to the basic and erroneous mechanism being used, but that they simply haven’t been granted sufficient governmental powers, i.e., the removal of even more of our basic individual rights and freedoms for these sadistic, sociopathic perverts to do their work successfully.

    It’s quite possible, that many of the early Prohibitionists did not intend to kill hundreds of thousands worldwide or put 1 in every 32 Americans under supervision of the correctional system. Nevertheless, it may now be reasonable to claim, that our Latter-Day Sadomoralist Prison-for-Profit Prohibitionists don’t care. They don’t care that, historically, the prohibition of any mind altering substance has never resulted in anything else but mayhem and chaos. They don’t care that America has the highest percentage of it’s citizens incarcerated of any country in the history of the planet. And they don’t care about spawning far worse conditions than those they claim to be alleviating. These despotic imbeciles are actually quite happy to create as much mayhem as possible, after all, it’s what fills their prisons and gets them elected. Which is why it’s no surprise, that when asked if they support torture, prohibitionist, GOP Presidential candidates rush to raise their hands.

  • jonathan Cleaver

    An interesting article. I am concerned that whilst prisons are increasingly managed by private sector organisations. Thus, ruling classes have little incentive to reform the criminalisation of drugs as warehousing offenders is highly profitable way to extract tax payers money.

  • SilverSmith

    @Rhoda Klapp: You are missing the point. Legalisation IS control of the drugs market. The current market is totally uncontrolled and in the hands of criminals. Check out Tranform’s “Blueprint for Regulation” if you need to understand this better.

  • Hegemony

    @Rhoda – I didn’t say that the Right were more or less Authoritarian than the Left.

    Only – (and I’m making this distinction clear here) – whilst the Left does not = authoritarian (no matter what you fellows like to claim), in essence a communitarian viewpoint, based on the needs of a whole society, will not necessarily find any internal contradictions in having draconian laws *on subjects which the populace agree*. Hence, it wouldn’t be internally inconsistent with such a viewpoint in maintaining the current drugs laws.

    It wouldn’t be internally inconsistent with a true conservative party either, btw.

    What it is internally inconsistent with is economic liberalism. If you maintain, say, freedom to do whatever the hell you like with your money (and one can of course, see the appeal of the argument), then why can’t you have freedom to do what the hell you like with your body?

    That’s the point, really. All our parties have always, and always will, practice *selective* liberalism. Just, up till a certain point, the *Old* Labour party doing so wasn’t a case of it contradicting itself (post Blair, very much contradicting themselves, because they adopted the economic liberal line like everyone else…we don’t mind that some bond traders can destroy whole communities, because we are supremely comfortable with some people getting extremely rich at the expense of others, but heaven forfend someone should smoke in a public place…).

    That clarify what I meant?

  • Baron

    ThigArLatha @ 10.45 gets confused: “Guns can cause harm to others”.

    no, sir, guns don’t cause harm to others, people pulling the trigger on the gun cause harm, as do those who resort to knives, glass bottles, bare knuckles and stuff. It amazes people blame a gun, when a gunman uses it committing a crime, they never blame matches when an arsonist sets up a building ablaze.

    have said it before, here comes again, in a liberal society people are, amongst other things, free to possess guns, if they misuse them, they’re punished, truly punished, they feel the pain, others get the message the severe punishment fans out. In a pseudo-liberal society such as ours, vacuous of true punishment, a mere possession of a gun must also be criminalized, the whole of the society has its liberty curtailed for its unwillingness to punish the real villains, in a perverse belief the outlawing of guns will stop gun crime. This, of course, is bollocks, those of the evil disposition not afraid to kill, a serious offence carrying a possible life sentence, are never likely to be afraid obtaining a gun, much less serious offence carrying a max sentence of five years.

    as I’ve said in a post before, handgun crime shot up in the two years following the ban, more than quadrupling the rate of increase before, it has kept on rising since.

  • John Chase

    Before “Dave” goes to Vienna,I hope he reads up on Switzerland’s 14 year success in managing opiates**

    It is the Swiss HAT program (“Heroin Assisted Treatment”), proved so successful the Swiss people approved it by over 2 to 1 in a 2008 referendum. It is now part of Switzerland’s Public Health Service. HAT is sure to be a topic for discussion.

    **In English it is found at

  • Baron

    normanc @ 12.24: “America has tried the illiberal …. and the result is that there are record numbers of drug users and record numbers of people in prison”.

    no sir, America has tried the pseudo-illiberal, the truly illiberal would mean hanging dealers without the right to more than two appeals. That’s our problem in the West, we don’t punish, we cannot punish so that the punishment of the one is the deterrent for the other. This avenue for solving the drug problem has been closed to us, firmly shut.

    The other one, liberalizing drug policy, we cannot pursue either, not because the unwashed will not stand for it, the views of the electorate would be as much of a problem for the political classes as they have been on the EU referendum, they would push it through. The reason they don’t is their fearing it may collapse the NHS.

    Over 100 years back or so, one could buy potent drugs over the counter, poverty was widespread, no protective layers of uman rights, the NHS and stuff, yet not many people took drugs, those who did were mostly amongst the upper classes out of boredom. If we switched from the NHS principle of free at the point of use, to pay at the point of use then it would be easy to let go on drugs, anyone harming himself would only have himself (insurance), family, friends, the charities to call upon, within few years drug use would fall to a fraction of what it’s today.

    Rhoda, you so right on the banning of handguns, handgun crime doubled within seven years of the ban. Madness.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Hegemony, is it your contention that, in general, left-wing parties are more authoritarian than right-wing? If so, it’s laughable. It’s us and them out there, and part of being them is exerting power over us, just because they can.

  • andrew kerins

    The logic of legalization is that you can get as much of any drug as you want, unless we introduce rationing simultaneously.
    It is difficult to see that increased drug use, even if accompanied by a reduction in crime locally, would help places like Possilpark and Niddrie.
    Most countries, from liberal Sweden to authoritarian Singapore, manage to contain this problem.
    We should look at why we fail to do so.
    I am reminded of the trade union leader who
    was willing to bring down the Labour government in 1979 because Mrs Thatcher could not possibly be any worse for workers.

  • Hegemony

    The problem with the libertarian view is it doesn’t take into account that the majority of people don’t want legalisation. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a healthy (most of the proponents of legalisation I’ve ever met have been in hale and hearty condition) and growing minority who do, but the majority of the country are small c conservative on the issue (and other issues of social liberalism).

    And therein, really, like with all of these issues, lies the problem for the *right*.

    Economic Liberalism is not conservative. It destroys communities, livelihoods, jobs. Oh, you can argue that it creates from the destruction (and I’m not going to argue with you over that, I get the point, creative destruction). But it does destroy the established order. The old Marx quote about “all that is solid melts into air” wasn’t fully a condemnation, but also an appreciation.

    But the majority of people in the world don’t want the established order melting into air. Hence the authoritarianism on social issues that characterises the parties of the right.

    Get rid of that authoritarianism (doing which would be consistent with the economic liberalism) and we are left with the question “in what way are the conservatives conservative?”.

    That doesn’t particularly bother me, on the Left. But it sure as hell would bother those core voters.

  • normanc

    The starting point for this debate should be that drugs are de facto legal already in the UK. Drop anyone who has grown up using drugs into any town or city in the UK and they’ll be able to score any drug they want within half an hour.

    As an aside, the thriving ‘legal high’ industry is now worth a lot of money and new legal highs are coming out faster than they can be regulated against. I could place an order for MPA (basically speed) or MPAI (basically ‘e’) or a multitude of others and have them delivered by registerd post to my door by lunch time tomorrow.

    The only two paths we can go down (if we want to make progress) are the liberal or the illiberal. America has tried the illiberal (as has the Middle East) and the result is that there are record numbers of drug users and record numbers of people in prison.

    Nothing will be done though so users (not dealers) can carry on safe in the knowledge that drugs are, to all practical purposes, legal and the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade can be happy at the ever increasing numbers of dealers / burglars / muggers filling prisons.

  • John Dubai

    The problem with the “hang ’em and flog ’em” approach, attractive though it may be according to some principles, is that IT SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK. Liberal, illiberal – who cares? We need a policy which reduces the harm done to society by drugs, and if that means legalisation coupled with stricter controls, we should be open to considering that.

  • Hugh

    Even ignoring the other faults in your argument Dave wouldn’t be legalising drugs. He’d be legalising drugs in the UK.

    That would make it a happy hotspot for drug tourism and, one suspects, create its own law enforcement problems – only now we’d be continually failing to stop their export (and good luck telling other countries that means there’s an unanswerable case for legalisation in their jurisdictions).

    It also seems likely you’re going to turn chunks of the UK into Amsterdam – only without the canals. I wouldn’t want to live there.

  • Slim Jim

    ‘And when he campaigned for the Troy leadership’…are you saying he’s wooden, Alex? Keith D – absolutely spot on. Prohibition doesn’t work. Control the sale and supply through a robust licensing system. That’s the way forward.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    ThigArLatha, guns may indeed be used for harmful reasons. But there is (I understand) a thriving black market, and anyone who wants a gun can get one. This is of course limited to criminals. So the situation has parallels with drugs. The authorities are getting nowhere in containing gun crime, but are preventing people who want to ‘enjoy’ the legal use of guns from having them.

    Of course the drug thing puts libertarians on the spot. To what extent should we stop people from harming themselves? Adults, probably should be allowed to do what they like, if they take responsibilty for it. Children? Who will stop them from getting the drugs? Well, nobody is stopping them now, but will there be rul;es, laws, whatever? If so, that is just moving the line. And what about drugs which do nothing but harm? The ones that seriously mess you up? Should there be ANY control on them? What about prescription drugs? Would I be allowed to buy heroin in the chemist, but not hydrocortizone ointment? Or the whole panoply of harmless herbals which were banned recently?

  • Sam Davidson

    Oh, thank you Alex. It’s always good to hear liberals sticking to their principles rather than voicing the nonsensical populist position. As a conservative, I always feel isolated when those on my side spout the “string ’em up” line as regards drug users and dealers. Because I don’t see what on earth is wrong with letting people make up their own minds. In a democratic country, it should not just be Doctors who have the keys to the medicine chest! The puritans will always make their case that all drugs are evil and destroy people’s lives, but they don’t give a damn that there happen to be people out there whose lives (ie quality of life) are improved by chemicals.

  • Keith D

    Having experienced the effects of hard drugs on a community and individuals in a Scottish housing estate one thing is absolutely clear.The Drugs War was lost a long time ago.
    Criminal gangs poisoning the kids,petty crime to feed habits,shootings,deprivation and a disproportionate use of Police manpower.
    Apply the same principles we adopt when discussing our legal,and lethal,drugs of choice.Tax and control the less harmful substances thus stopping the cash flow to the gangs.Thus ensuring our kids aren’t taking anything laced with deisel or rat poison.
    We save lives,we destroy criminal networks and we free the police to fight crime.

  • ThigArLatha

    To me it seems Rhoda is mistaken on liberal principles. (Liberal as in liberty rather than liberal democrat)
    Guns can cause harm to others, Murder ditto.
    Hence they are regulated in law or outlawed.
    Drugs do,I think on the balance of probabilities, cause harm to the user and anguish to the families of the users.
    However I am not sure that the law is an appropriate tool to deal with this.
    However the harm they cause is limited to the person using. Any other harm, such as robbery or theft to feed a habit, needs to be dealt with via the laws against those offences.
    All in all a very good article.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Got any other problems where the same logic is to be employed? We can’t fix it, so make it legal. Murder? Gun use? Terrorism? Speeding? Or does it only apply to drugs?

    Do you imagine a nation where there are no controls on recreational drugs? Or if we need controls, are we not then discussing moving the lines a bit, rather than actual legalisation? This in a world where we are banning herbal remedies?

    Don’t think I don’t sympathise with the argument to some extent, but really one has to go a little further in what one plans to actually do rather than leave the details hanging.

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