Howard Flight: Why the time has come for drug legalisation
Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Confessions of drug use in their youth by politicians raises the case for controlled legalisation of drugs – at least of soft drugs, if not yet of hard drugs. Such drugs are already legal to some extent in 30 countries – largely in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Portugal: in Latin America, in Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Jamaica. To this must be added Cambodia, where all drugs are used publicly and legally: it is considered the country with the most freedom when it comes to drugs.
The newest country to take the legalisation path is Canada, which has brought in complex new laws legalising cannabis. It has been legalised throughout the country, though the rules will vary amongst the ten Canadian provinces. Even the mandated minimum age for consumption varies between the ages of 18 and 21. Nova Scotia, with a population of 940,000, will have 12 stores run in conjunction with the province’s Liquor Board; but British Columbia, with a population of 4.6 million, will have only one store. In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, it will initially be available only online.
Canada’s intention is to show the rest of the world that cannabis legalisation is a good thing. Like the UK, Canada has spent a quarter of a century discussing this territory and advocating legalisation. The Canadian measures legalise the industry, but criminalise a lot of the aspects around the use of cannabis: only purchases from officially recognised stores will be legal; giving marijuana to a minor will remain illegal. In Ontario, people will be free to smoke or vape marijuana anywhere just as they are allowed to consume tobacco, but elsewhere, public consumption remains illegal and subject to a fine.
Mexico arguably provided the strongest case for legalisation. Against the background of Mexico having relatively high drug abuse, the black market and the drug cartels caused substantial criminal problems, and led to a large number of deaths. Drugs were legalised in 2009, and a lot of the legalised drugs are from hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine. The Government has legalised these drugs, hoping that decriminalisation would help in making Mexico a safer place. This has not yet been as effective as had been hoped.
Similar arguments now apply to London. The growing number of knife deaths are drug cartel-related. Teenagers can earn £45,000 per annum pushing drugs, and if they get knifed – e.g. for acting against their cartel – others are always willing to take their place. The police have an impossible task in trying to enforce the law. My judgement is that a majority of the police favour controlled decriminalisation. Part of the programme should include I.D Cards, which should help fight crime in a wider context.
In the USA, support for legalising marijuana has risen from 32 per cent to 54 per cent over the last nine years. There is an economic and commercial case for legalising. One of the beneficiaries of legalising drugs is the Government. Once drugs can be distributed commercially, tax can be imposed on them in the same way as they are imposed on cigarettes. The potential tax revenues could reach £5 billion.
Legalisation on the streets would also reduce Government police expenditure, saving the costs of seeking to enforce the law on drug prohibition. The cost of court proceedings, prosecutions and the sustenance of inmates incarcerated for unlawful drug use can also be saved. The legalisation of marijuana would also enables many of the sick to reduce their pain.
The arguments against liberalisation are that making drugs more accessible can lead to more people committing more crime. It can also cloud the mind, and can end in crime. Drugs contain chemicals and substances that can cause depression. If individuals are free to buy any drug ‘over the counter’, addiction and depression can result. If drugs become readily available, businesses can commercialise on this and encourage people to buy and become addicted. The results so far from countries which have liberalised have been mixed. The Netherlands has been disappointing. It had been hoped that more people would have ceased consuming drugs.
The arguments for controlled legalisation are in principle more powerful than the arguments against. To achieve a satisfactory out-turn from legalisation, such a programme would clearly need well-disciplined, prescribed distributors; these could be Government stores, or independent stores licenced and closely monitored by government.
As things stand, in large western Cites such as London, the current laws are useless but have created a large criminal and vicious distribution industry. It is difficult to see anything other than legalisation and close Government monitoring thereof being able to address the drug problems.
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