"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Legalise the highs, Ken

It’s almost painful to see Justice Secretary Ken Clarke admitting to the Commons home affairs select committee inquiry into drugs, that the tired approach of criminalising their use is failing miserably while at the same time refusing to change track.
"We are all disappointed by the fact that, far from making progress, it could be argued we are going backwards at times. But my own personal view is that I would be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation of youngsters who start experimenting … One thing that does put them off is that they would get into trouble with the police."
So, getting into trouble with the police deters would be drug users, yet there are more drug users than ever. Yeah right, that makes lots of sense. I know, first hand , that the decision to experiment with recreational drugs has very little to do with their illegality or otherwise. Usually, depending on circumstances, it’s a combination of curiosity, peer pressure and availability as the chances of getting caught in possession of a prohibited substance is actually quite small unless you bring yourself to the attention of the police for other reasons.
The casual use of marijuana, amphetamines and MDMA derivatives such as ecstasy is ubiquitous, not only among the young but also within ‘mainstream’ society. The generations that grew up through the seventies and eighties are more than familiar with the jargon, paraphernalia and effects of recreational drugs and in my personal experience do not suffer from the paranoia about their use and abuse in society to the extent that the government seems to believe they should. In this respect the general public are probably more in tune with reality than the authorities. Ken Clarke puts his position this way:
"I have not reached the stage of that blinding insight about exactly how we are going to improve our record, is the honest truth […] We have been engaged in a war on drugs for more than 30 years. We are plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round. But I do not despair – we keep trying every method we can to get on top of what's one of the worst social problems for the country and the biggest single cause of crime."
Well one of the reasons drug use is a social problem, and definitely why it’s a cause of crime is precicely because it’s illegal. Illegality drives up the price of drugs on ‘the street’ (the actual base cost of many of them in their country of origin being very low), attracting already criminal elements into the supply chain so requiring users to associate with dangerous people to obtain them. Illegality also means that production is covert and with no quality control, so that many drugs are contaminated with other more dangerous toxins exacerbating the risk of use. Illegality criminalises otherwise law abiding people for making personal choices about what they consume and their preferred mental state. Illegality makes it difficult for people to seek help if their drug use becomes a problem. Illegality maintains the impression that all drug use is intrinsically a bad thing.
Nobody, well not me at any rate, is arguing that recreational drugs are risk free. They undoubtedly have detrimental effects on some aspects of health, and some are more harmful than others. But society is able to tolerate and control many risky lifestyle choices without making criminals of those that adopt them. Alcohol, nicotine and sugary snacks are all obvious and legal indulgences that can result in poor health outcomes. But so are skiing, rock climbing, sky-diving and a whole host of adrenaline fuelled pursuits that society positively endorses. The fact that a behaviour is a risk to someone’s personal health is not a reason to criminalise it.
But these socially sanctioned behaviours are all regulated to an extent. Alcohol and tobacco are sold under licence and the potential burden to the state of poor health is mitigated by taxation, while some countries are considering treating sugar in the same way. Extreme sports are usually only permitted in appropriate places, where the risk to non participants is minimalised.
This is exactly the way we should treat recreational drugs; legalise them, sell them from suitably licensed premises which in turn source them from legitimatised producers, then tax them but at a price that is not worth smugglers undercutting. You can also make the penalties for illegally importing and supplying drugs as draconian as you like.
The result would be; revenue for the state, controlled dosage and quality control for the users, the marginalisation of criminal networks, opportunities for addiction education, medical supervision and social inclusion for those currently marginalised by the law. The idea that droves of teens would start jacking up in back alleys just because it was legal is ludicrous, drugs are readily available now as Ken Clarke seems to agree.
The real harm is in the prohibition which filters profits into racketeering, people trafficking and terrorism, saddles users with a criminal record and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy creating a vicious cycle of social ills.
It really is time to ‘legalise those highs’ Ken.

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