We are hopelessly locked into a cruel and unwinnable war. A repeat of the first hundred years one. I am referring to the war on drugs. It is eviscerating our health care systems, our law-and-order institutions, our urban societies, our penal systems. And our young people. Despite all of this destruction, we still continue to favour politicians who promise to be tough on drugs; to have zero tolerance for them. But, since I was knee high to a grasshopper, these same politicians have been boasting continuously of record hauls of all of the offending substances, seemingly oblivious to the fact that decades of record hauls, by definition, tells us that the industry (if we can call it that) is constantly growing.
Of course, ordinary citizens wish that the forces of law and order would just put an end to the scourge; lock up the miscreants, confiscate their ill-gotten wealth and be relieved of all of the burdens that the trade imposes on our societies. However virtuous, such an approach is not going to succeed. Why? Because of the unimaginable amount of monetary gain it offers to the criminals involved.
We have tried this before when the substance involved was alcohol and America introduced prohibition. All that programme achieved was bigger and more violent gangs and gangsters and made alcohol even more attractive. Nowadays, we are inclined to write off the abolitionists as overly conservative, perhaps even overly religious, but they were as well-meaning as we are in our attempts to banish the modern pandemic of hard drugs. Alcohol was, and is, a drug. It was, and is, capable of inflicting serious damage on a sizable section of our societies. It does, fortunately, have a number of important virtues. It is a prolific lubricant of social intercourse. It allows our worries, fears and even secrets to be more openly expressed. In times of shock and extreme stress it can help us survive. Usefully, it has an ancient history, which has allowed us millennia to analyse its benefits and disadvantages. Conversely, our modern problem – drugs – often drive us inward and away from the essential human joy of social interaction. More appallingly, for drug users, the addiction rate is almost total.
We need to have a better understanding of what exactly is going on to have any chance of a solution. Our conception of the shady characters on street corners and back alleys being the drug pushers is totally wrong. Most are just sad misfits operating as powerless retailers. We clog our court systems and expensive jails with them with very little hope of rehabilitation, because they know no other life. For every one we deprive of liberty, there are dozens of replacements. The seemingly unacceptable reality is that the real pushers are school or college friends, work colleagues or social friends. Generally, these can be seen as those we refer to as bad company for our children in school but they exist at all ages. It is reasonable to think of them as silly or perhaps more frequently as existing addicts searching to tempt others for a few fixes for themselves. Some amongst them are more dangerous, prone to violence, and with ambition to move up the gang ladder. From there up it is more like the film nasties we are used to: self-satisfied, brutish, cruel and largely invisible to the forces of law and order.
That is still not a full picture, but a nicely sanitized one that can be attributed to the supposed “low life” who live in the inner cities. Except that the drug lords are swimming in an ocean of cash of such volumes that it cannot be dealt with without large numbers of bankers, financiers and accountants. They also need to corrupt some law and customs officers. Does anyone believe that paragons of high society who pushed unnecessary opiates onto an unsuspecting public were not low life drug dealers? Or that the doctors who wrote the, often fatal, unnecessary prescriptions were better than corner boy suppliers? Are the tobacco manufacturers, who for so long hid the evidence of damage that they possessed, less reprehensible than the friend who persuades his more gullible colleague to try this new kick? Even the wealthy, who can afford recreational use of cocaine, are guilty of supporting a rancid industry. Some of the denizens of our greened and pleasant neighbourhoods, by indulging themselves, are even more guilty of enabling drug use as the underprivileged and underpaid residents of the least salubrious inner-city ghettos.
Because of the literal hurricane of illicit wealth constantly being produced by the trade the one possibility of ending the plague lies in choking off the money supply, and the only hope of achieving that aim is to legalize and nationalise the entire thing. I can hear the gasps of horror. The State deal in Drugs!!! Relax! There is no chance of it happening in the near future. Our universal politicians are far too intent on proving that they adhere, more closely than their competitors, to the general morality and thoughts of their electorate. It is this quirk that delayed the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, social welfare and medicine and a thousand other improvements to society that we now consider to be of obvious benefit. It is still peculiar that we have listened to solutions about drugs for generations, all with the same message of tougher sentences, more police, more ruthlessness and zero tolerance and continued all that time to see the blight, and all of its associated evils, grow and grow.
The advantages of legalising and controlling the supply by nationalising it are legion. We can begin to treat our addicts as patients, not as criminals. Vast sums of money will start to re-enter the visible economy. Gun crime will reduce in many parts of the world as drug gangs’ wealth is reduced. The trade itself will be decimated. There is no point in trying to create addicts if they are going to disappear almost immediately. Police and customs work will become more bearable and our jails will be less crowded and less expensive. Our cities will become safer. Our children will be less at risk. Life in general will become saner.
There will be a negative side to such an approach but it will be temporary. The gangs will become ever more feral and violent as they try to make the changeover too expensive, emotionally and financially. Those who secretly make their money from the abysmal trade will use their proxies to persuade the righteous that it is not proper for the State to get involved. Other crime will increase as criminals struggle to find other sources of income. When we see all of this happening, we will know that we are on the path to success.
However aghast you are at the idea of the State playing such a role; however much your righteous anger is inflamed by the very thought; it doesn’t matter. However long it takes to summon the will, it will happen. It is the only solution to putting an end to an horrific societal evil. We have a choice. One that we will have to face at some point: either take the money out of the abysmal trade, or face decades of an unwinnable Afghan style war, with its appalling costs, both social and financial.
Our righteous anger will not win that war.