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Report: Legalising drugs would save UK plc huge packet

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Comment New research has confirmed a reality which is obvious to many, but which can seldom be acknowledged in British mainstream politics: that it is primarily the fact of drugs being illegal which makes them so damaging to society. Furthermore, if drugs were legalised - even assuming a huge increase in their use - the public purse would gain substantially.

The confirmation comes in a report from the thinktank Transform, funded by charitable foundations and individual donors. In it, the authors note the poor record to date of today's prohibitive drug laws, which were "established with the clear aim of reducing drug supply and use, but have achieved the exact opposite on a consistent basis". In the year 1970, the UK had fewer than 2000 dependent heroin and cocaine users; by the turn of the century there were 100,000 in government treatment programmes and as many as 200,000 more in the population.

The report's authors also note the rather capricious nature of the UK's drug laws: dangerous alcohol and tobacco are regulated but permitted, and comparatively innocuous substances such as ecstasy and cannabis forbidden. This backfires, of course: as alcohol is mostly supplied by legal and regulated channels, a parent - for instance - actually has more visibility of and control over a teenager's alcohol consumption than his or her possible heroin, cocaine or skunk habit.

Transform also points out the ridiculous way in which the case for prohibition is pushed, citing as an example the HIV/AIDS epidemic which resulted among intravenous drug users sharing needles - a direct consequence of prohibition, not of drug use itself. Nonetheless, the Home Office actually sought to use this to justify strict drug laws.

In this case a specific drug-related harm that is almost exclusively the result of the highrisk behaviours, rituals, products and environments that stem directly from prohibition and the default underground drug cultures it creates, is perversely being used both to justify the continuation of the very policy that has fostered it in the first instance, and also to argue against the policy [legalisation and regulation] that would largely eliminate it.

In the study, the Transform analysts generally describe a worst-case scenario for legalisation and regulation. They consider only the benefits from legalised use of cocaine and heroin; they assume that there would be little or no tax revenue from these drug users.

Potential taxation revenue is assumed to be fairly small (for the non-prescribed opiate and cocaine market), in the region of tens of millions, once the inflationary pressures of prohibition are removed. These figures have not been calculated or included.

The analysis also ignores many large potential benefits to Blighty of legalised drug use, such as no longer having to fight the war in Afghanistan with one hand tied behind our backs. (One of the greatest handicaps for our troops there is that they are committed to wiping out the opiate-farming sector, the region's main profitable business. This drives people into the arms of the Taliban, as well as offering them a ready source of funds.) But this is not included in the report.

We have deliberately been conservative in our assumptions regarding the benefits of moving to legal regulation of drugs, and the costs of prohibition. Substantial and acknowledged costs of the current system of prohibition, prominently including international drug enforcement and the illicit trade’s impact on destabilisation of producer and transit countries (conflict, corruption, terrorism in Afghanistan for example), are not included ...

The main, easily visible benefit of legalisation, according to Transform, would be that junkies would no longer need to mug and burgle to pay for their habits. Legal drugs would be much cheaper than prohibited ones, so that even poor addicts could afford them. They would then leave the rest of us alone, which would save an enormous fortune in policing, court and prison costs.

There would still be drug crime of the same sort as today's alcohol crime: druggies fighting, crashing cars, vandalising and breaching the peace the way drinkers do. But the habit-feeding robbery would largely cease.

It is a relatively small subset of the using population, made up of marginalised low income dependent users offending to fund their drug use, who are disproportionately responsible for creating the secondary £13.9 billion in acquisitive crime costs from the £3.7 billion turnover of the illicit market for heroin and cocaine. That the heroin and cocaine market, freed of the distorting influence of criminal market economic pressures, would likely be worth around one tenth of the £3.7 billion figure highlights this particular negative impact of prohibition economics even more starkly.

Over half of all UK property crime is to fund drug misuse, primarily heroin and cocaine. If drugs were available on prescription or at affordable prices comparable to those paid by dependent drinkers, it is assumed that levels of acquisitive crime related to fundraising would be negligible. Intoxication-related offences would be unchanged (at a given level of use).

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