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Frank replies - The Government's justification for prohibition

Many thanks to Jamie Gaffney, a UKCIA reader and forum contributor, who kindly sent UKCIA the below article for publication in May 2004.

Some time ago, Jamie asked FRANK, the Government's latest drugs education attempt, why, if the U.S. had had such a bad experience with alcohol prohibition, did this government think that drug prohibition in general was such a good idea. FRANK passed the question on to the Department of Health who after some time replied. After further correspondence they finally sent their justificaiton for continuing prohibition to Jamie. He was unimpressed with their response and took the time to pick their arguments apart. Below is the response from the Department of Health, and Jamie's comments as to why their justification is illogical.

If you would like to have a go at getting some explanation for the present policy, we'd love to hear how you get on - contact us and let us know what happened!

 

DoH justification Response
Legalisation of drugs 

While it is likely that there would be a reduction in acquisitive crime,

Indeed. How much acquisitive crime is associated with legal drugs? None, because the free market sets their prices at affordable levels.
if drugs were legalised, it is important to remember that there is other crime associated with drug misuse, for example crimes committed under intoxication.
While some stimulants such as amphetamines and crack cocaine can lead users to act irresponsibly while under the influence, by far the biggest risk to public safety is alcohol – a legal drug, the use of which is condoned by the government. The only 'crimes' associated with the vast majority of illegal drugs are their production, distribution and possession. These are acts which do not harm a non-consenting other, so they should not be crimes.
And the legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime.
Strawman [definition]. No-one has suggested any other outcome. When the U.S. relegalised alcohol in 1933 with the repeal of the 18 th Amendment, organised crime had already established a stranglehold on 'consensual crimes', so naturally moved its emphasis from alcohol to prostitution and gambling. There is no reason to doubt this will happen again after drug relegalisation, however the fewer opportunities we give organised crime to make a profit, the better .

A regulated market for drugs would certainly provide the opportunity for tax revenue.

This is a significant admission from the government. Too bad it's followed immediately by:

But establishing the level of taxation would be difficult.

The government already decides levels of taxation on various goods and services governed by such factors as anticipated revenue and any deterrent they may wish to place on purchase ('sin taxes'). While I appreciate that a sensible balance needs to be struck, legalising and taxing these drugs would raise much-needed funds to improve our public services.

Setting the price too high would open the door for the illegal markets,

This is certainly true – witness the 'smuggling' of alcohol and tobacco across the Channel, although I would characterise this as the European free market at work. If goods or services are cheaper elsewhere, we should be allowed to take advantage of the flexibility offered by the free market .

while setting it too low could feed that same market.

Why would anyone buy at a higher price from an unlicensed dealer when they could buy at a lower price from a licensed outlet, gaining the protection of the consumer and health and safety laws?

Nor is it the case that regulated markets eliminate illicit supplies, as alcohol and tobacco smuggling demonstrate.

Blatant nonsense. The author has clearly failed to understand the difference between the legal and illegal drug markets. Smuggled tobacco and alcohol are merely diverted, purchased in a lower tax regime (or stolen) from legal, licensed producers who are subject to stringent safety and quality regulations. If you buy a smuggled bottle of French wine, it will be the same French wine that is on sale from your local supermarket… only cheaper. Illegal drugs on the other hand, are subject to no regulation, no quality control, no health and safety checks. They are only smuggled due to their legal status – does anyone think they have a chance of getting an import license for cannabis…?

Either the author cannot see the distinction between these two markets, or he/she is deliberately lying.

Regulation also carries its own administrative and enforcement costs.

How do these compare to the costs of the drug war, I wonder? How do they compare to the money wasted on pursuing drug users, arresting, trying and imprisoning them? How much is wasted when a productive member of society is thrown in jail for smoking a joint and turned from a taxpayer to a tax consumer? How much does it cost to treat (and sometimes bury) the victims of impure, poor quality drugs?

Unless drugs were freely available to everyone, including children, it would not be possible to stop the illicit market operating at the margins of any regulated system.

This is a highly offensive argument : no-one in any legalisation campaign advocates making psychoactive substances freely available to children. Perhaps the government should look closer at how it condones the rising prescriptions of Ritalin…?

As the Home Secretary has said, the Government welcomes an open debate on drugs issues.

I find this very hard to believe. This government has proved itself dedicated to pursuing the war on drugs, no matter what the cost in money and ruined lives.

But this debate has to be sensible and well informed.

While the government uses the reasoning outlined in this document, I would describe their level of debate as neither sensible nor well informed. They have proven themselves to be idiotic, closed-minded and vindictive.

The Government is aware of the arguments for legalising controlled drugs, but has concluded that the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits.

I would agree that they are aware of the arguments, but unwilling and unable to understand them. By what reasoning have they concluded that 'the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits'? What 'benefits' have they seen from criminalisation?

At a time when we are doing much to try to reduce the misuse of tobacco and alcohol due to ever greater concerns about their safety,

I'm glad that the government has understood the dangers of alcohol and tobacco. However, they have so far concluded that criminalisation is not the answer. Why, then, is it deemed to be the answer with other drugs?

it would be perverse to take the huge gamble with public health that would be involved in legalising drugs.

Highly judgemental language: 'perverse' and 'gamble' are two words always guaranteed to hit the public's 'hot buttons'. Is this why they were used here? Quite apart from their suspect use of language, I would say they have been gambling with public health by making drugs more dangerous through prohibition, instead of regulating their quality and providing legal avenues for users to gain compensation from bad suppliers.

Why is cannabis illegal?
 

The criminalisation of cannabis can best be understood by setting it in a combined historical and international context. The drug has, of course, been used medicinally and recreationally for many hundreds of years.

True. And now they're about to license Sativex - maybe!

It was widely used as a medicine in Britain during Victorian times for a variety of ailments.

It was the one of the most effective painkillers available – only bettered by morphine.

People were well aware, however, at that time that it was an unpredictable drug.

Just how unpredictable was cannabis considered to be? Was it any more, or less predictable in its effects than other drugs available at the time? And how did these risks compare to the compatibility issues found with other drugs?

In the 1900s, new drugs were developed, e.g. aspirin and other, better pain killers; and, as a result, the use of ancient herbal medicines, including cannabis, declined.

Aspirin can kill. Cannabis cannot. Is this 'better'?

Cannabis nevertheless remained available as a medicine in the United Kingdom, in the form of extracts and tinctures, until 1973, when its use was prohibited by the coming into force of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That Act was passed by Parliament in line with the controls on cannabis – and many other drugs – agreed under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 for the purpose of providing "effective measures against abuse of narcotic drugs".

It does not follow from our obligation to reduce drug misuse (and I use this term in its literal sense: a glass of wine a night is sensible use, a bottle of whisky a day is abuse) that prohibition is the answer. Education and proper regulation would work far better. And need I mention that cannabis is not a narcotic? Only opiates are narcotic.

Further UN measures followed and, now, the legalisation of cannabis would be a breach of our international obligations under two United Nations Conventions – the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, which prohibits (where prohibition is regarded as the most appropriate means of protecting public health and welfare)

Again, it does not follow that prohibition is the best way to protect public health , in fact the evidence tells us that the opposite is true: illegal drugs have no quality control, making them more harmful . Were no lessons learnt from the U.S. Prohibition era?

the possession and use of cannabis, as well as many other drugs, except for scientific and medical research purposes; and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1988, which, among other things, requires parties to the Convention – subject to their constitutional principles and the basic concepts of their legal systems – to establish the possession of cannabis (and many other drugs) as a criminal offence.

It's true that we're bound by the terms of the UN Convention. However, we are free to leave at any time by passing the required legislation in Parliament, which would allow us to pursue a more rational and compassionate approach to drug use.

However, it is left to individual states to determine what level of sanctions to apply in conformity with their domestic law. It is this discretion that provides the scope for variation of the sanctions applied.

The Convention allows wide discretion to be applied by its signatories as to how to control the trade in drugs. It is not automatically the case that the drugs be completely prohibited and their users punished.

What evidence is there that Class A drugs are the most harmful drugs?
 
Class A drugs are the most harmful of the drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 by virtue - as you know - of "the physical harm that they may cause, ...associated withdrawal reactions after chronic use, and the harm that misuse may bring to families and society at large."
While it is true that they have potential for harm, it is exacerbated by the government's policy of forcing users to resort to an unregulated criminal market. Deaths from these drugs increased after criminalisation, but it seems the government is unable or unwilling to look at the evidence.
There is plenty of evidence of acute and chronic health risks attached to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, including the death rates associated with their use.

Again, these are made worse by prohibition. The established risks of heroin in its pure, uncontaminated state are:

  1. Addiction (but we do not use this as a reason for banning tobacco)
  2. Overdose (but this could be drastically reduced if consistent, measured doses were available. How many accidental overdoses are recorded against diacetylmorphine when administered in hospitals?
  3. Constipation

Crack cocaine is a product of the drug war: 'more bang for your buck'. The Incas saw no need to consume cocaine by any other means than chewing the coca leaves which were freely available. There were no legal risks inherent in collecting or distributing the leaves, so therefore no need to concentrate the 'product' to compensate for any losses from seizures .

In addition, the use of these drugs often has a severe detrimental effect on the user's family, as well as on the community generally, all too often resulting in a cycle of crime, misery and social exclusion.

This is getting rather tiresome. If one has to break the law to feed one's habit, these consequences are inevitable. Why else were these 'detrimental effects' not seen when heroin / cocaine were legal?

The Government therefore has no intention of legalising the recreational use of these, or indeed any other, controlled drug.

These drugs are not 'controlled'. Rather, they are uncontrolled , left to the vagaries of the black market: impure, contaminated and overpriced; always with the risk of violent 'enforcement' around the corner. The use of the word 'controlled' is meaningless: control of these drugs has been passed from competent, regulated producers to the criminal underworld.

While our drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug misuse

They have no hope of achieving that purpose. All they have done is make matters worse by abandoning any hope of controlling the quality and supply of drugs, leaving unscrupulous organised criminals in control.

- i.e. misuse of drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 -

Here we see the drug war logic: all illegal drugs are automatically misused because they are illegal, therefore they must be kept illegal. Does anyone else see the circle close?

there is no doubt that they do help to limit use and deter experimentation of such drugs.

They have no such effect. The opposite is true: drug use has risen inexorably under prohibition, and the 'forbidden fruit' syndrome ensures there are always new, curious consumers.

They are an important part of the Government's overall strategy to reduce the use of illegal drugs and the harm resulting from their use.

They do not work, they make things worse, they ruin lives. Is this what we want?

Tobacco and Alcohol  

So, why not make tobacco and alcohol controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? Alcohol and tobacco are so widely used in modern society that criminalisation of their supply and use (over and above the licensing restrictions) is not on the agenda.

So drug policy is to be decided by numbers, is it? I thought that drug policy was supposed to be based on health and welfare, not by how many people would be offended by their drug of choice being banned!

There is no question about the fact that tobacco is a very dangerous substance indeed.

I'm grateful that the government has seen fit to realise this. However, this admission exposes the lie that drug policy is based on health grounds, doesn't it?

If attempts were made to introduce cigarettes today, there is every likelihood that their production and sale would be banned immediately.

Given what we know about the effects of tobacco, this is very likely to be true. But I'm sure that organised crime would find a way around it; after all it has with all the illegal drugs. Do we really want to hand over control of such a dangerous, addictive drug to organised crime?

Consumption at any level is dangerous - there is no such thing as a "safe"; cigarette - and tobacco consumption leads to some 120,000 deaths per year in the United Kingdom. That is why the Government is supporting the restraints contained in the current Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship Bill.

A little comparison is worthwhile here:

Drug

Tobacco

Cannabis

Attributable deaths

120,000 per year

0

Is this what they mean by 'restraint'?

Tobacco has, however, a 400 year history of social acceptance and any attempt to ban its use now would result in more widespread smuggling and law breaking.

So, banning tobacco would de facto hand over control to the black market? Why not it has with every other drug the government has banned. More to the point, if cannabis has had a 10,000 year history of social acceptance why was it banned? Or does history have nothing to do with it after all?

The Government therefore relies on a comprehensive programme of health education and the provision of support for those wishing to give up.

Why not try this with other drugs? It's already working with tobacco; no punishment required, just education.

The issues surrounding alcohol consumption are not as clear cut.

They are perfectly clear-cut, and any attempt by government to obscure this is just dishonest. All drugs have potential for harm but a responsible user will be aware of these and take the appropriate steps to avoid or mitigate them… including abstention if that is their choice.
Alcohol in moderation is not dangerous but it can cause social and medical harm if it is misused.
Absolutely! Why is common sense so hard for them to understand?
That is why neither the Government, nor the Royal Colleges such as the Royal College of Physicians, advise complete abstinence but instead promote the sensible consumption of alcohol.

Sounds sensible to me. Why not apply this more widely? If people are treated as adults, they tend to act like them.

Within that context the Government is concerned to ensure that alcoholic drinks are not advertised or promoted irresponsibly, either in ways which glamorise or encourage excessive drinking, or in ways which have undue appeal to children or young people.

The promotion of fashionable drinks such as alcopops to a predominantly young market is hardly responsible. Given alcohol's known potential for harm, how can the government's claim to be so concerned with this issue be taken seriously?

As you may be aware, advertising of alcoholic drinks is already regulated by voluntary codes set up by the drinks industry and the Advertising Standards Authority.

In effect, the alcohol advertising industry is governed by itself. Would we, as a society, condone any other examples of 'the fox guarding the chickens?'

These codes ban inappropriate advertising, including advertisements which encourage excessive drinking, which suggest that alcoholic drinks can enhance mental, physical or sexual capabilities, or which are aimed at children and younger people. The drinks industry is also concerned to ensure that the promotion and sponsorship of alcohol is handled responsibly.

Good idea. Be honest about what your product does, then adult consumers can make up their own minds. Wouldn't that be better than treating the 'wrong' drug users like naughty children?

The Government believes that the most effective way of tackling the problems caused by alcohol, tobacco and controlled drugs is by using a full range of practical measures, based on evidence of what works.

Hard to believe. There is no evidence that prohibition works, and all the evidence in the world tells us it makes things worse. So why stick with it?

Laws and law enforcement play their part, but will not work in isolation.

They do not work, full stop. All the evidence accumulated since the beginning of the drug war tells us so.

In each case the Government is getting more addicts into treatment

This sounds good, but must be voluntary. No tobacco smoker is forced to kick their habit by law, so why should any other drug user ? Even after treatment, ex-addicts can relapse back into using the same impure, uncontrolled drugs as before.

and investing in education and publicity campaigns to turn people away from using each substance.

I'm personally in favour of this, but drug education must be scrupulously honest and balanced in order to have any credibility whatsoever. What we see instead is hysterical propaganda aimed at keeping the drug war rumbling along, demonising users of the 'wrong' drugs.

Conclusion

So, are we any closer to understanding why some drugs are legal and some not? No. Not a single argument presented by the government stands up to logical scrutiny, not a single one.

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