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Decriminalisation of all drugs

Comment 6th August 2010

Not just cannabis, and not legalisation, simply decriminalisation, of all drugs.   Find a way of safe distribution, of taxing them if necessary, but stop the pretence that the current policy works and is not just an absurd and damaging waste of resources.

Remove the fact that a multi-billion pound industry (£300bn a year, according to Transform) is controlled by armed criminals and is linked to activities such as human trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and so many other forms of corruption (see Misha Glenny, MacMafia). 

Remove the attraction to young people who will inevitably want to do what their parents tell them not to, who will get a far greater buzz from buying something in a shady – and potentially dangerous – corner than from the local pharmacy.

Remove the risk of contaminants from brick dust to rat poison that drugs are cut with.   Control the quality and minimise the damage.

Remove the principal revenue from the Taliban, and contribute to the removal of the disasters that are Colombia, Cuidad Juarez and so many other drug centres, all involved with servicing the west. 

And save the enormous sums the current shambles costs.

Why does this matter?


There has never been a better time to stop the absurd waste of money and human potential that is the UK drugs policy.   The point must be to stop destroying lives, either by direct hard drug use or by criminalisation of minor drug use, and to redirect the cost of the current policy at a time of serious social and economic cutbacks and upheavals.

While the male prison population of England and Wales increased by 57% between 1992 and 2002 (Home Office statistics), the percentage sentenced for drug offences increased by 201%. Equivalent figures for women prisoners are 184% and 414%.   That is the result of the 'war on drugs' begun by the last Conservative administration and continued by New Labour.

59% of prisoners released were reconvicted within two years (same Home Office source).

The New English and Welsh Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring research in 2003 calculated the cost of crime committed to fund drug use to be £16bn a year, including 85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.

It is highly unlikely, with the continuing expansion of the prison population, that any of these figures have decreased.

Bodies as different as Transform and the Centre for Policy Studies have called the 'war on drugs' an expensive failure.

Each prison place costs an average of just over £40,000 per year.   Currently there are some 10,000 prisoners in for drug offences, plus a further 20,000 in for the above-mentioned burglary, robbery etc.  Taking a conservative estimate of 60% of those latter offences to be drug-related, that makes 12,000 prisoners serving sentences to fund their drug habits.   So in total 22,000 prisoners are incarcerated because of drugs.   At £40,000 per capita per year, that is £880m per year simply to keep them in prison.   I can find no figures for the additional costs of the court services, police etc.

At the same time, about 2000 heroin users die in the UK each year (Professor Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research, University of Glasgow).

Drugs policy in prison means that many convicted cannabis users emerge with a heroin addiction, as it is harder to detect in testing.   Institutionalised use of methadone and other heroin substitutes ensures prisoners still have a drug habit when they are released.

Public money saved should be spent on ameliorating the life chances that now condemn so many to no pleasure in life but some quick high.   At the same time, recreational users who are harming no-one but themselves, and possibly no more than by cigarettes (pace Professor Nutt) or alcohol, are left alone and with no criminal record.

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