Drug Control: Futile and Immoral

 Robert Henderson

During the nineteenth century, the period of Britain’s greatest power, comparative wealth and influence, drugs were freely available: at first hashish and opium in various forms, followed by cocaine, morphine and heroin in the latter part of the period.  Not only did the world not collapse and the country fall to ruin, Britain prospered greatly: GDP in 1900 was approximately ten times what it was in 1800, the population increased fourfold, social disorder decreased, the political franchise was considerably broadened, industrialisation proceeded apace and the Empire increased to become the only world empire ever worthy of the name.

Today we live in a country in which it is generally accepted that drug taking ranging from hashish to heroin is widespread despite drugs being illegal, expensive, difficult to obtain and of uncertain quality.  Yet even in these difficult financial times, Britain has the fifth or sixth  largest economy in the world, people are living ever longer and the general health and prosperity of the population is much improved and still improving and growing.  Drug taking now is self-evidently not going to bring society down or even seriously incommode it.

Let me add reminiscence.  I was an undergraduate at Keele University in the late sixties and early seventies.  At that time, the majority of Keele students took drugs: one was thought a little odd if one did not.  Yet the dropout rate was very low. Students took both drugs and their degrees with equal facility.

Once a product that is widely desired is made illegal a certain pattern of behaviour always results: a black market, gangsters, the  criminalisation of essentially law-abiding people and much social dislocation.  This applies whether or not the object of desire has long been part of the social fabric such as drink or a novelty such as crack cocaine.  Take the example of American Prohibition.  The consequence of that quite insane piece of social engineering was illegality on a Herculean scale.  Indeed, it was Prohibition that allowed the rise of the Mob and organised crime, with all the varied criminality and misery that brought not merely during Prohibition but ever since, a fact all too easily ignored by those who wish drugs to remain illegal.  Drug profits are and have been so large that they fund much of non-drug major crime.

The life of the addict

What is the life of the addict today?  Most will either not be able to get drugs supplied by the state or will reject those on offer such as the heroin substitute methadone because they are inadequate substitutes.  If the addict does not have money, he must regularly commit crime.  That may be anything from stealing from his family and friends to violent street robbery.  Living like that, he will probably alienate his family and friends and his only companions will be fellow addicts.  The addict may often become a dealer to fund his habit.  To obtain his drugs he is reliant on suppliers who have no scruples and who may not be readily available when the drug is needed.  The drugs he obtains may be adulterated or too pure and thus too powerful.  Either may kill the addict, although the number who die is actually small. If he is caught by the police the addict risks prison with all its brutalising effects.  In short, the average addict’s life is one of constant worry, frustration, social disruption and danger. It is that package of ills, not the effects of the drugs, that generally makes drug addicts go to rehab clinics.

That the average addict has to live in this way has severe consequences for society in general.  Even if someone is not the victim of a drug-related crime, everyone is affected by the cost of policing, trying and imprisoning addicts.  There are further costs, for example the state rehab centres that exist primarily because drugs are illegal and the provision of substitute drugs such as methadone.  It is also true that were drugs freely available, many poor addicts would be able to hold down a job because they would no longer have to spend their days desperately trying to get the means to purchase drugs.

The rich addict has a rather different life.  For him the main problems are the risk to health of adulterated goods or overdosing from an overly pure product and the danger of being arrested.  In practice, he normally manages to avoid both.  If he does fall ill or foul of the law, he can mitigate their effects by using his money.  Thus, the drug laws in practice discriminate between the rich and the poor.

Moral panic

Most people are aware at some level of the deleterious social effects of enforcing drug laws, yet overwhelmingly they support them.  The question is why?  The answer is that human beings are all too easily persuaded to join in a moral panic.

Moral panics are a consistent theme of society.  To take a few at random from English history.  On they economic front we have moral panics over tulip mania, the South Sea Bubble, canal mania and railway mania.  In every case the country, according to the Jeremiahs, stood on the brink of ruin.  On the moral front, we have had panics over the drink, unbelief,  ill-manners, unwed couples and illegitimacy.  On the political front we have had concerns that the lower orders would dispossess the well-to-do if they were given the vote and a positive bevy of despair over the country going to the dogs after some setback such as the loss of the America colonies.  All proved to be a passing fashion.  The world did not end, England still stood after they had passed and our society evolved safely.

In the case of drugs, those opposed to their legalisation are confused about both their effects and of what exactly they are afraid.  The truth is that very few people in Britain unambiguously die of drugs each year, the numbers being counted in dozens rather than hundreds.  By unambiguously I mean the death is attributable to the taking of a drug rather than merely being the death of an addict.  Moreover, many of those who do die from drugs, do so because of the problems associated with the lives they live as a direct consequence of drugs having been made illegal.

The problem is that every now and then a tragic death of a youngster hits the headlines and the media, politicians and the professional anti-drug propagandists go into action to paint a picture of a world run mad with drug deaths and drug induced disorder.  Parents are naturally appalled and worried when they see these rare consequences of drug use.  What they do not generally do is understand that these are wholly exceptional cases and that even if their children took drugs it is very unlikely that they will die or be seriously harmed.  That they do not understand this is not surprising because they are faced with more or less blanket anti-drug propaganda by politicians, police and the media.

For those who have family or friends who are addicts, reality impinges.  Their concerns and fears are frequently not primarily the largely illusory dangers of drug taking, but the antisocial behaviour to which the illegality of the drug drives the addict and the ever lurking dangers of imprisonment with which an addict must live.

The myth of a golden age

The moral panic about drugs is part of a larger moral panic that sees, quite against the evidence, that our present society is in some way lacking in the moral certainties and restraint of previous ages.  ‘Permissiveness’ and the welfare state are fingered as the culprits.  In fact, this is merely a re-run of previous moral panics that always harked back to a golden age.

A few facts from our social history.  The Welfare State did not suddenly materialise in 1945.  England has had a welfare state of sorts since the seventeenth century.  The Tudor concern for the growth of ‘sturdy beggars’ culminated in the Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601.  These created the first legally enforceable national provision for the poor in the world.  The Acts placed a legal obligation on parishes to provide for their poor by a general poor rate.  It was not generally enforced until after the Restoration, but from the latter part of that century it was in effect a welfare state and provided the means by which an able bodied man and his family might live even if they could not find paid work – although they would be expected to labour at work provided by the parish – and the infirm supported.

Between 1660 and 1830 the provision offered under Parish relief grew.  Outdoor relief, i.e. relief outside the workhouse reached its zenith with the supplementing of wages in what was known as the Speenhamland system.  (Sounds familiar?  Employers, generally farmers, did the obvious and reduced their wages to a level that permitted the recipient of such relief to live on the combined relief and the reduced wages).

By the 1830s, the Poor Law had become both an expensive, uneven and ill-administered system.  It was reformed by the Act of 1834 (the Poor Law Amendment Act), which standardised the provision of relief offered throughout the UK and retained the emphasis on helping the ‘deserving poor’, their deserving status being ensured by insistence on labour if the person was physically capable of it.  It was a harsh system – men and women were separated even if man and wife – and much hated, but again it did ensure a man and his family would not starve.

By the time that drugs were first criminalised in the 1920s,England had a very broad state provision for much of the population of what we would now call the welfare state: pensions, unemployment pay, sick pay, healthcare and education.

Alongside state provision was a vast array of private charity, providing everything from money, housing, education, training, employment and healthcare, such as it was before the latter half of the 19th century.

The truth is that people have always been able to escape the effects of their fecklessness.  Take unwanted children.  Until the end of the eighteenth century and quite probably later, infanticide was common in England.  Babies were also frequently left in public places in the hope that they would be ‘adopted’ by others.  Many were.  Later, formal adoption became common for the children of ‘fallen women’.

There were other ways of getting rid of children.  They could be left on the parish.  When older they could be sold (often by the parishes) as ‘apprentices’ to often-unscrupulous masters: chimney sweeps were frequently recruited in this manner.

The golden age of sexual propriety is just a small window in English history.  Illegitimacy was very high before the latter half of the 19th century.  Men frequently deserted women they had made pregnant: the ‘navigators’ who built the railways in the 19th century were probably the champions of this trick.

As for other fecklessness, until the formation of modern police forces your chances of being caught if you committed a crime were pretty small.  So, if you got into debt, a little light villainy could well get you out of it, at least in London, where ‘liberties’ – areas where the authorities would not go in normal times – protected criminals until the 1850s.  A golden age of moral restraint never existed.

How can the drug fearers be reassured?

How do we on the legalising side persuade the great mass of people that making drugs freely available is safe?  Well, let us start with the experience of the Victorians.  They were not in fact exercised massively by the social effects of drugs, although there was some concern about opium addiction.  Rather they were greatly concerned with the ‘demon drink’.  On a rational basis, they were correct to have that priority, because alcohol is by far the most socially disruptive drug.  Yet in practice, they lived quite comfortably with the ill effects of alcohol and developed a tremendously successful society.  We do the same today.  Most people take alcohol and behave reasonably.  There is a general lesson to be learnt from that, namely, when a drug is freely available a few will abuse it but most will not.

How can we be sure that what happens with alcohol will happen with drugs?  Simple, we point to the experience of drug use when the it was legal and debunk the myth of the past as a golden age of responsibility and restraint compared with our own.

What of the physical effects of drugs?  Few die of any illegal drug.  As for claims such as the supposed memory loss and loss of intellectual function in hashish users, I have known people who have taken marijuana or cannabis for more than thirty years.  I have noticed no intellectual diminution or memory loss in such people when compared with non-users I have known for an equivalent period.  Many people take hard drugs throughout their adult lives and live to a normal age.  Moreover, if drugs were legalised, the quality and strength of the drugs could be assured and what little risk there is of death and serious disablement would be further reduced.

How should legalisation be introduced?

The trick is to legalise all drugs.  If you merely legalise, say, cannabis, you have not cured the problem.  All you have done is deal with one of the symptoms.  People will still want other drugs.

In an ideal world, legalisation would take place globally. However, that is never going to happen, so if we wish to cut the Gordian knot we have no option but to go it alone.  Once one large First World country has had the courage to legalise all drugs, the odds are that the rest will not be far behind.

When I say legalise all drugs, I mean all drugs.  Prescription only drugs vary greatly from country to country and the Internet allows easy access to drugs unavailable in a particular country. Moreover, anyone with the money to go to a doctor privately has always been able to get most drugs on demand.  The objection that the effectiveness and useful life of drugs such as antibiotics will reduced really does not hold water when they are prescribed in such numbers and can be obtained without prescription in many countries.  Bacteria know no national boundaries.  It is also true that many substances that are non-prescription are as potentially dangerous as prescription drugs.

How should drugs be sold when legalised?  They should be treated as tobacco and alcohol are treated.  They should be taxed and be available as easily.  The tax would remove any reasonable gripe about health-related costs resulting from legalisation

There will be those who call for a lower age limit for the sale of drugs.  It may be necessary on political grounds to have such a limit, but let no one imagine that it will be any more effective than the age limits for drink and tobacco.  Such laws are in principle impossible to enforce because they will always be so widely broken that their policing is impossible.  They also have the ill effect of bringing the law into contempt because everyone knows that they are routinely broken.

What addicts want

I presently live in one of the drug hotspots of inner London. Addicts tell me the same story over and over again.  Their primary problems are the uncertainty of supply and the need to commit crimes to pay for their habit.  They also fret over going to prison.  What they are not concerned about is being addicts any more than a cigarette smoker is worried about being an addict.  Take away the criminality and the addicts’ problems, and the problems they cause the rest of us, will miraculously vanish.

People do not commonly go out mugging people to pay for cigarettes.  Legalise drugs and most users will not be out mugging people to pay for them, families will not be disrupted, users will not have their lives made a misery, the crimes of theft and street robbery will fall considerably, the police will be released for other duties, and the state will not have to pay for their imprisonment and ‘treatment’.

In short, let the sociology take the strain and society will not a have drug problem, it will merely have a hard core of abusers just as alcohol has a hard core of abusers.  The distribution of personality and personal circumstances within society and their interaction with the general culture ensures that will always be so.

For libertarians there are two strong reasons for supporting legalisation beyond the practical.  Firstly, the presumption for the libertarian must be that every individual has the right to make choices for himself or herself.  Secondly, the banning of anything gives the state great latitude to interfere in the lives of its people.

The hard truth of drug control is that it is not merely futile but immoral in its effects on individuals and society.

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  • efgd  On April 22, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Once again an excellent blog topic.
    I think the proof of the past has to be looked at – why do we fail to look at and learn from history, always trying to reinvent the wheel.
    Drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, if legalised, would be sold in measured quantities and at a regulated price and standard.
    Totally agree with your recommendations Robert.


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