Report: Legalising drugs would save UK plc huge packet
Common sense doomed by Guardian/Daily Mail axis
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).
Guardian and Daily Mail readers: La la la la, we aren't listening
Another major potential benefit of legalisation - the massive health improvements from using nice clean drugs made in pharma factories rather than poisonous crap from illicit labs, adulterated with god knows what - is also left out. The death rate among users is predicted to drop significantly, however, owing to the arrival of clean needles and the fact that the most unwell users would be using prescription drugs in a medical setting rather than a crack den or wherever.
It is argued that significant health harms stem from use of illicitly supplied drugs in hazardous environments, and that these would be dramatically reduced under a regulated system. However, for this paper we assume that health and social care costs per user remain the same.
As a substantial proportion of the drug death risk factors stem directly from the behaviours, environments and products associated with illicit drug culture, particularly around injecting, we assume that the drug-related death rate would be reduced ...
Around 10% of the most high harm causing problematic users would have heroin and/or cocaine available on prescription in some form, so we calculate total costs of prescribing diamorphine [medical heroin] and cocaine for each scenario modelled.
Finally, the report allows a £150m budget for regulators, administrators and other infrastructure to manage the new legal drugs sector.
Transform argues that in fact the level of drug use isn't much affected by the level of prohibition and/or enforcement: anyone who wants to will use drugs if they've a mind to and the police can't stop them. All they can ever do is push up the price, and so drive addicts to commit more crimes in order to afford their fix.
Nonetheless, those in favour of prohibition often argue that there would be a lot more drug use if the laws were relaxed: and it is true that where only one country or district relaxes it laws there is often "drugs tourism" by users from outside. So Transform considered four different scenarios, including a drop in drug use, no change, or big increases.
The results were, even in the worst-case modelling used, that the public purse still came out ahead even with a doubling of hard-drugs users:
The net annual benefit of a move from prohibition to legal state regulation and control of drug markets would be: Scenario a) 50% fall in use, net benefit = £13.943 billion Scenario b) No change in use, net benefit = £10.834 billion Scenario c) 50% increase in use, net benefit = £7.724 billion Scenario d) 100% increase in use, net benefit = £4.616 billion
In fact things would probably be a lot better than that. It seems quite reasonable to expect that you could actually raise some tax revenue after a while, certainly from the prestige nose-candy market and similar users.
Once you factor in an actual feasible way ahead in Afghanistan, the health savings from nice commercial drugs (the difference would be similar to that between drinking proper whiskey and send-you-blind moonshine made in a plastic bucket) etc etc - why, we'd probably be able to afford another bank or two. And it would become hugely more pleasant to live in and around the nation's council estates, as the formerly larcenous addicts would be out of the picture - as would the perhaps still more irritating dealers, their unpleasant and dangerous retail premises and their violent business disputes. Those guys think they're tough businessmen, but they wouldn't stand a chance against the likes of Glaxo and British American Tobacco.
As the Transform people point out:
The policy of prohibition itself is the direct source of much of what is perceived as ‘the drug problem’ - specifically the vast majority of drug-related crime - rather than drug use per se. The Government has also repeatedly failed to acknowledge that prohibition is a policy choice ...
Could it ever happen?
Sadly, probably not. Even to speak of legalising cannabis is to sign one's own political death warrant in Blighty. The kneejerk Daily Mail reading government-by-crackdown legions up and down the land are in this case being joined in many cases by Guardian skunk-fear "liberals", who have only just woken up to the fact that a certain proportion of people would rather lie about off their faces all day than get on with their lives - and will do that more or less regardless of the cost to themselves and those around them even if there's nothing better than cider or glue on offer. A certain proportion of these people will also go mad - become schizophrenic - though this has no measurable connection with cannabis use.
Unsurprisingly, so far from relaxing on drugs, there's a determined push under way to prohibit or tax into illegality the remaining legal drugs: booze, tobacco, even chocolate.
So the Transform report seems likely to fall on stony ground. It can be read in pdf here. ®