Criminalisation of drugs is plain stupid!

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By Ellie Clarke, Holborn and St Pancras CLP

If one thing is obvious, it’s that prohibition has never worked. The global war on drugs has been well and truly lost, leaving nothing in it’s wake but misery, death and destruction for most, whilst a few elites (be them cartel bosses or private prison operators) profit from the pain.

Believe it or not, drug legislation is actually pretty new in the UK. It wasn’t until WWI that the possession, distribution and sale of cocaine and opium was outlawed. For many years after this our drug laws remained liberal, with heroin prescribed to addicts on the NHS as a way to circumvent the social problems that come with addiction. This humanitarian approach to drug abuse was chucked after pressure from the UN led to the introduction of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. This act saw much tougher penalties for drug offences.

Since then, we have watched state after state engage in all out urban warfare with its own citizens. Lest we forget the era defining footage of Nancy Reagan and LA police chief Daryl Gates driving an actual tank through the front of a suspected crack house in 1989 (you couldn’t make it up!).

What does this have to do with Labour though? In The Clarion #14 I wrote about the wave of violent crime in my area, and how this relates to the drug trade. Rather than deal with the complex situation head on, Camden Council has decided to make recreational drug use their hobby horse. Since then, other leading labour figures including Jeremy Corbyn have decided to get in on the act. On a recent trip to the Peckwater Estate where a young man was stabbed to death, Corbyn said: “smart, wealthy people turning up buying cocaine on the streets are part of the problem… they don’t realise the impact they have on the streets… our kids are losing their lives because of it.” He isn’t completely wrong. No one can deny that drugs play a huge role in violent crime but making this about consumption is futile misdirection.

The drug market is violent because it has been left in the hands of organised criminals. Drug consumption is dangerous because drugs are unregulated. The UN was the key organisation behind ‘the war on drugs’ and in its own 2008 world drug report admitted: “the first unintended consequence is the creation of a criminal black market. There is no shortage of criminals interested in competing in a market in which hundredfold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon.” Unintended consequence? How could anyone fail to see this coming? In the absence of normal regulatory mechanisms, violent discipline and conflicts over market share and profits become the norm. Then add into this clashes with law enforcement and the intimidation of civilians, from both sides of the conflict.

When low level drug trade is disrupted, turf wars become exacerbated and cost is passed on to the low income, dependent consumers, creating more street crime. According to a study by the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2003, drug users are responsible for 56% of all crimes. On the rare occasion international law enforcement manages to take down a real key player, the fallout is catastrophic. When a big cartel goes down it creates a power vacuum at the top that can take years of bloody conflict to resolve. Also, at the risk of sounding alarmist, drugs don’t just fund gangs – they fund terrorism. As pointed out in the Alternative World Drug Report of 2012: “the opium trade earns the Taliban and other extremist groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border up to $500m a year”. From London to Mexico and through to Afghanistan, the only people winning from the criminalisation of drugs are the bad guys.

The decriminalisation of drug consumption in many European countries is progressive and, much to the dismay of the ‘lock them up’ crowed, has caused no increase in drug consumption. Instead it’s proved to be beneficial to public health. However, decriminalisation here does nothing to tackle the violence and terror at the point of production and supply. I don’t want to oversimplify an incredibly complex situation with a silver bullet solution but legalisation seems to me a logical route.

Regulated markets cannot deal with the underlying causes of drug dependency but they do offer the prospect of making the world safer. There is no reason why other drugs can’t be regulated and supplied in the same way (or preferably an even better way) than alcohol and cigarettes. A black market would probably still exist but it would be nothing in comparison to what it is now. People argue this would lead to the normalisation and widespread use of harmful drugs. But if coupled with the right education and social provisions, why would it? Smoking continues to decrease in the UK year on year. Not fighting this losing battle would pay for itself in the long run and have the added benefit of making some of the most nocuous forms of policing defunct.

Plus, with the right progressive taxation in place the profit made off narcotics could pay for the medical and social services we so desperately need. Imagine a world where rich cokeheads were forced to pay for publicly owned rehab centres! These are the kind of policy debates we need to be having and they are light years ahead of the moralistic finger wagging we currently see from most Labour figures.

When asked by a journalist in Camden if he supported the legalisation of drugs, Corbyn answered: “we support the medical use of cannabis.” Well, so does everyone with half a brain, Corbz! You’re not exactly ripping up the playbook, are you? If I had to put money on it, I would guess Corbyn actually does support the legalisation of drugs, but he currently lacks the will to fundamentally challenge the status quo on this. We need a change to stop the dangerous cycle of mercenaries getting richer and kids getting killed in our streets and streets around the world.

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