It’s time to discuss alternatives to prohibition.
Our approach to the legal status of drugs should not be based on ideology. It should be based on the effectiveness of policies and the common good. Using either of those principles the quasi-prohibitionist policies being pursued by the Irish government has failed. EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel has stated that “consumers now have access to a diverse range of highly potent and pure products at affordable prices.”
Illicit drugs are now more easily accessed by children and teenagers than alcohol. Alcohol is regulated and the sale of it to minors is prohibited. A shop selling alcohol to a minor would face severe consequences. As drug dealers are already engaged in serious criminal activity they have no incentive to refuse to sell drugs to children. They have an incentive to sell drugs to children in order to maximise revenue as quickly as possible given the constant risk of arrest of the seizure of their drugs.
Attempts to prohibit the consumption of illicit drugs have failed to remove their availability to consumers but have succeeded in ensuring that there are no regulations governing their sale and supply. We know addictive drugs can be regulated and managed because we already regulate and manage the consumption of several drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco.
Any discussion of the legal status of drugs must taken place in the open and must rely on honestly presented evidence. Potential negative impacts of legalisation should be considered prior to legalisation, monitored following legalisation, and frequently reviewed to determine if those potential negative impacts have been occurred. The legalisation of drugs is not a wonder policy that will end all negatives associated with the abuse of drugs, but it should be considered as part of a practical movement to a better country.
Use is not abuse
We must distinguish between the use of drugs and the misuse of drugs. There is an immediate and obvious difference between someone who uses drugs for a purpose and someone who has lost control of their drug use. In the same way there is an immediate and obvious difference between a person who relaxes with a whiskey before bed and an alcoholic pawning their jewellery so they can get drunk off mouthwash. The former is harmless to society, the latter is a threat to the public good and may require intervention.
Legalisation, not decriminalisation.
Legalisation would mean that the manufacturing, supply, and sale of illicit drugs would become subject to regulation. This means that users would buy from reputable vendors selling drugs of a guaranteed quality and strength. Legalisation totally removes drug gangs and illegal operators from the market by allowing the private sector to engage in regulated trade.
Decriminalisation however would mean that the manufacturing, supply, and sale of currently illicit drugs would remain illegal while possession of those drugs would not be prosecuted. The entire manufacturing and distribution chains would still be controlled by criminal gangs.
Four arguments for legalisation
1. Legalisation will provide economic opportunities to Irish workers and entrepreneurs
In the narrow sense the legalisation of drugs is good for the Irish economy as it offers a chance to cut out the criminals and regularise the drug trade within Ireland. A reasonable licensing system will allow private vendors to open shops across the country, bringing with them regional employment. Farmers, likewise, will benefit from increased economic opportunities as demand increases for the cultivation of various narcotic and psychotropic crops.
In a wider sense there is a trend towards the decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs across much of the world. By moving ahead of that trend Ireland will be able to develop indigenous companies which will be well placed to expand into new markets, European and global, as the legal situation develops. The potential markets are vast in scape, with adults spending an estimated 30 billion euro a year on illicit drugs within the EU alone.
2. Legalisation will stop the violence associated with the drug trade
The violence associated with the illicit drug trade is well-known and the drug trade is violent due to its illegality. The violence, coercion, and bribery of those involved in the drug trade is inevitable.
The drugs trade is a business but as the drug trade exists entirely outside of the legal system disputes cannot be covered under contractual arrangements or brought before the courts. As such those involved in the trade have no legal recourse in cases of non-payment, failure to deliver goods, etc. Violence, and the threat of violence is what regulates a market which does not benefit from the rule of law.
The current legal status of drugs has created a system in which gangs which use violence, coercion, and bribery to ensure others do not break agreements with them, and/or increase their market share, possess a sustainable competitive advantage over those players who are not willing to engage in violence and intimidation. As such it is inevitable that, all other things being equal, violent gangs will supplant non-violent gangs and will themselves, in turn, be challenged by competitors willing to use greater violence. In Ireland roughly 50% of all homicides a year are drug related.
3. Legalisation means consumers will know exactly what they are taking
Every activity in life presents some level of risk of harm to a person’s health. Some activities, like going for a walk outside, present minor risks whilst others can be immensely risky. Dr David Nut, a former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs argued that a review of the statistical evidence showed that horse riding was substantially more dangerous to health than taking ecstasy
Reasonable regulations can minimise those risks, but it is simply not possible to remove all risk from an activity. The key is to ensure people have all of the information required in order to make an informed decision as to the risks they are willing to take.
The usage of illicit drugs can present a significant level of risk to a person’s health but the exact level of risk presented depends on a number of factors, not least the illicit drug being used. A significant contributor to the risks associated with consuming illicit drugs is the fact that the law makes it difficult or impossible for consumers to know that the drugs they are purchasing are what the seller claims them to be.
Consumers cannot accurately determine the best way to use drugs, as they may be taking a different drug or an adulterated version of what they expected, and so consumers engage in behaviour that is far riskier than they had anticipated. This leads to serious injury and death, but it has not stopped people from taking illicit drugs.
Legalising drugs would allow consumers to know exactly what they are taking. It would also remove worry consumers can feel about seeking medical aid should an emergency arise, as they would no longer have to worry that they would face legal sanction for their drug usage if they sought medical attention.
4. Legalisation will allow the state to more effectively protect people from the negative impacts of drug misuse
Many of the potential negative impacts of drug use stem from the control of the drug trade by criminal gangs. Those negative impacts would largely be removed by legalisation of the drugs. There are negative impacts that will arise purely from the use of certain drugs – opiates are strongly addictive, other drugs such as meth can have acutely negative impacts on the human heart, as two examples.
This may be taken as an argument to continue to restrict these particular drugs whilst legalizing those deemed to be less harmful, but to do so would be to ignore a simple fact. Consumers who wish to use these drugs can get them, and all prohibition has done is ensure that those consumers are placed at the greatest possible risk whilst doing so. Moving these people into a legal framework would be of immediate benefit to them, both in relation to their health but also in safeguarding them from violence or becoming involved in criminality.
Taxes gathered from the sale of currently illicit drugs could be used to increase access to, and the quality of, programs designed to help those whose drug use has become problematic. Often drug users do not trust information from the government about drugs. This is a legacy of anti-drug programs which massively inflated the risks of drugs, claims which users know are largely false.
Legalisation will place the government more as a disinterested advisor This can be combined with the greater resources for drug abuse treatments, and control of the supply of drugs through licensing arrangements, to move people whose drug use is becoming problematic towards treatment before it causes serious physiological harm or develops into a deep-seated addiction.