Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Legalisation of Drugs: Yes or No?

It's been a busy few days - but one recent spat that caught my eye was the discussion about drugs between Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens on Newsnight.  Russell Brand said he believed drugs should be legalised, and that we should soften up and treat addiction as an illness. His argument is that we shouldn't be a nation that 'criminalises' drug addicts. Peter Hitchens wants a much tougher approach; punishing offenders and filtrating more intense national disincentive in the hope that nascent drug users won't even start to use them for fear of punitive consequences.  I think both of them are making fundamental mistakes in their reasoning.

Let’s start with Russell Brand; he, and many other pro-legalisers like him, usually base their views on two simple errors.  1) That legalising drugs means we can then begin to tax drug users and improve the economy.  And 2) That legalising drugs will not 'criminalise' people who are beset by addiction.  I might point out first off that laws don't criminalise people - breaking those laws is what criminalises people.  Now I don't know if the Government has its laws on drugs spot on, but I suspect (with ambiguous strength) that it has, because drugs do an awful lot of harm and addiction to them induces a lot of crime, so it seems right that they should be illegal. 

It may be pointed out that alcohol also does a lot of harm and induces a lot of crime (in both cases more than some of the soft drugs) but that's not an argument in favour of legalising drugs, because if minimising harm and crime in society is your main aim then it's more an argument in favour of making alcohol illegal (which virtually no one supports, for good reason).  It is true that some people drink in moderation, and enjoy alcohol recreationally without very much harm to society, so it wouldn't be fair on them to make it illegal.  But that's largely irrelevant; it’s equally true that some people take drugs in moderation and enjoy them recreationally without very much harm to society.  Those people could make the same argument in favour of legalising drugs. 

No, it actually shows something different; it shows that legality and illegality is often part of a historical legacy that either is or is not modified according to the changing climate. This will show what I mean.  Pretend there's never been any such thing as alcohol.  Tomorrow someone combines ethanol with other compounds and proposes to trial on the market this new product call 'alcoholic drinks'.  The Government monitors its effect on society, filming those effects on the first night of public consumption.  Numerous drunken people go out on the town, losing their inhibitions, peeing in doorways, hurling abuse at passes by, having fights, trying to coax staggering drunk girls into bed, and throwing up all over the streets.  Next day a committee looks back at the effects of this new product called 'alcoholic drinks'.  It would never get past the trial stage - they'd stamp it 'illegal' right from the off.  So ‘effects vs. legality’ doesn’t always pertain to prudent practices or sound foresight.

As for the argument that drug legalisation will improve the economy by giving the government tens of millions in tax revenue – well it’s simply not the sort of thing that anyone who understands the costs and benefits of taxation would say.  Given the ubiquity of this ‘Legalisation of drugs = more money for the economy’ argument, I must conclude that this misunderstanding applies to a lot of people.  Tax revenues are not a net gain for the British economy; they are simply money transferred from some people’s pockets to other people’s pockets.  To show how silly this is, imagine if everyone whose surname begins with A to M gave five pounds to everyone whose surname begins with N to Z.  Sure Mr Zimbardo would be better off than Mr Adams in the transaction, but no one sensible would argue that the economy as a whole had grown.  Furthermore, the tax the drug sellers paid through drug purchases when drug dealing became legalised is simply money that the drug sellers would have paid through spending it by some other means when drug dealing was illegal.

Not only is tax revenue neutral with regard to society’s gains or losses, it is equally the case that humans may well spend their own money much more prudently than the Government would spend it.  What the Government spends the tax revenue on may be a net benefit to society, but it may just as likely be a net loss to society.  If the Government spends it on public services, then society has some gain (although not necessarily a net gain).  If it spends it on a disastrous and costly eco project, or a foreign war, or a nuclear missile program then society probably would incur a net loss.

There is one way that legalising drugs yields a societal gain.  Quite simply, there is a cost to society of law enforcement.  This isn’t so much a financial cost, but it costs society in other ways.  It costs police time and court time that could be used making a difference in places and situations that are more deserving of it.  And it costs skills and resources, because everybody who is sent to prison for drug dealing is no longer able to contribute to society.  A prisoner cannot build anything, or clean offices, or fix photocopiers, or be a bus driver, or care for his elderly relatives, or contribute anything that serves society by way of skill and time. 

Now to Peter Hitchens.  Peter Hitchens’ position is overly simplistic, and can thus be dismissed in the same simplistic way. Just ask yourself how we could possibly filter into society a more intense disincentive that would seep throughout Britain. Every solution he offers is not only vastly inadequate to the complexity of the subject, it's a solution that doesn't have the power to influence against the many other predominant factors involved. Terms like 'tougher laws' and 'greater incentives' are examples of meaningless abstractions, serving no real use in the political sphere.  Tougher laws will only do some good for our well-being if we can cope with even more people in prison, and find ways to manage the increased need for rehabilitation.  Simply uttering the phrase 'tougher laws' helps no one.  Having better methods of education and rehabilitation – now that would help.

And ‘greater incentives’ won't do much good unless we can tackle the roots of the problem, which is where the mindfulness of education and rehabilitation comes in; Why are so many people on drugs? How do we alter the conditions that give rise to drug addiction? How do we get people to value their lives in ways that mean they no longer wish to take drugs?  These, and other questions like them, are the other side of the incentives coin.  We’ve made a mistake in eroding away the incentives for good that people used to have, but British culture has evolved so much, with modern generations being too much like chameleons - fading into the colour of post-sixties counter-culturalism. Politicians cannot just reintroduce something into society that has all but eroded away from large parts of the culture.  So while I have sympathy with Peter Hitchens, his arguments are misjudged - not because they are wrong as ideals, but because they are impotent.

I don’t know if we should legalise drugs (I suspect we shouldn’t), but at least (unlike Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens) we ought to show an ambivalence with the correct form of reasoning.  Here is the reason I don’t know if we should.  To get an accurate reflection of society’s perception of the costs and benefits, we would need to ask those against legalisation how much they would be willing to pay to have drugs legalised, and those for legislation how much they’d be prepared to pay to prevent drugs being legalised.  The total of the highest aggregate bid minus the total of the lowest aggregate bid is the total benefit of the winning policy.  And no one can do this, so instead we work with assumptions based on pieces of an incomplete jigsaw – which our patchwork analysis indicates that the majority of people favour the prevention of drugs being legalised.  That is roughly why the drug laws are the way they are.