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Should drugs be legalised?

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Arguments for decriminalising drugs have found some unexpected backers. Dave Beech explains.

Last month John Grieve, head of Criminal Intelligence at the Metropolitan Police, made a speech about drugs calling for the government to “think the unthinkable”.

He wasn’t suggesting they took acid or any other mind-bending substance, but that they consider a limited amount of decriminalisation of drugs with a licensing system, similar to the alcohol licensing system. His arguments have been echoed in The Economist and several other bosses’ journals.

Why are these pillars of law and order suddenly entertaining these ideas? Quite simply because the present policy—cracking down on drugs through tougher policing—is not working. Even the Labour Party, usually so terrified of appearing radical, is talking about the need for a new agenda on drugs.

The use of drugs is widespread. The majority of young people use or have used cannabis. Its use is so widespread that the police are thinking about introducing a cautioning system for possession. Yet it still remains a jailable offence to be caught with any substantial amount.

Drug laws are supposed to be there to protect us from taking harmful substances. But the so-called soft drugs are far less harmful than other substances openly and legally sold. Cannabis does not cause major illnesses and death, whereas alcohol is thought to be responsible for 40,000, and smoking for 110,000, premature deaths in Britain each year.

But that isn’t an argument for adding cigarettes and alcohol to the list of banned drugs. Why turn someone into a criminal because they take something that may harm them? They may need support to avoid harmful effects or to give up an addiction, just like drinkers and smokers, but fining them or imprisoning them will not improve their health.

Those who favour keeping drugs illegal say it makes them more difficult to get, and therefore fewer people will be harmed. This is not true. Even in prison it is easy to buy all kinds of drugs—some say its easier than when you’re outside! Banning drugs does not stop them being used. Does making it illegal for young people to buy alcohol stop them from getting drunk? No. Does making it illegal for under-16 year olds to buy tobacco stop them from smoking? Of course it doesn’t.

The way to stop the harmful effects of drugs is through education about their effects, through controlling the quality of drug supply and, most importantly, fighting against the social and economic factors that make people vulnerable to the worst effects of drug misuse.

Criminalising drug use drives the supply, distribution and taking of drugs underground. People cannot talk openly about the effects, and can’t ensure the safest conditions for taking drugs.

The arguments about the distribution of clean needles and syringes to prevent the spread of HIV show the ridiculous results of criminalising drugs. Instead of moving to the rapid distribution of clean needles in the mid-1980s there were prolonged arguments about this “promoting” or “condoning” an illegal activity. Meanwhile hundreds of people were probably infected through using dirty needles. Eventually a degree of sense prevailed and needle exchanges were set up in Britain, but even now the authorities won’t give out needles in prison where many people are still at risk from sharing “works” (syringes).

As long as drugs are illegal, education about their use is inadequate, conditions for safer use are absent, and the control of their supply remains in the hands of exploitative dealers and the state. That is why we are for the legalisation of drug supply and the decriminalisation of drug use.

But what about the difference between “soft” and “hard” drugs? The distinction is supposed to relate to how harmful drugs are. It is meaningless—heroin and cocaine, both “hard” drugs, can be used safely. True, heroin is addictive, but in that respect no more so than alcohol and tobacco, or the valium that millions of people get legally from their doctors.

As for the argument that if you legalised soft drugs then people go onto hard drugs all the evidence points the other way. In Amsterdam 300 cafes are licensed to sell small amounts of cannabis. The level of hard drug use has gone down, especially amongst youth. The average age of users is now 34 and only 2% of hard drug users are under 22.

We don’t deny that some drugs can have harmful effects on the body, but it is the social situation in which they are are used, including the criminalisation, that lead to the majority of the problems.

Heroin is a good example: it is produced and distributed through illegal networks. It gets cut with all sorts of rubbish in order to increase the profits of the dealers. The things that are added are often dangerous themselves, and can cause poisoning. The user doesn’t know how strong the drug is and can die of an overdose. Because distribution is illegal, the dealers can add what they like knowing the users have no way of doing anything about it, other than by resorting to retribution and escalating violence.

Finally the prices are controlled by the big dealers (not the small time street dealers who are the usual targets of police swoops), and can be so extortionate that users have to turn to other criminal activities to fund their drugs. Turning to prostitution or petty crime users can get into a hopeless situation of illegality and often end up in prison.

It isn’t the drug use itself that causes these problems, it is the criminalisation of drug use combined with poverty. When working class youth get addicted to drugs they are faced with no escape, no solution, while the children of the rich are sent to the latest rehabilitation centre in plush surroundings.

One final argument against legalising drug use is that it leads to violence. But then so does alcohol. How many fights do you get at pub closing time? Drugs may make violence worse but they do not cause violence. That already exists in daily lives of people. Besides, getting stoned undoubtedly reduces the appetite for violence . . . and the ability to inflict it!

Against this argument the authorities point to the association of the drug crack with extreme levels of violence. But with crack the violence is over the buying and selling of the drug as different gangs try to muscle in on the profits to be made. The police use this violence as propaganda so they can continue invading inner-city areas. They use the drug laws when they want to intimidate and harass youth, especially black youth. They use drugs as a cover for smashing any resistance that youth might be offering them.

We do not trust the police to get rid of the drug gangs. They are responsible for much of the violence against youth anyway. It is up to youth, and the working class as a whole, to confront the drug dealers, who terrorise their communities, through democratic defence organisations. They, not the police, must take control of the estates and the streets.

All drugs should be legalised and available under a state monopoly. If drugs are legalised but they are sold by private companies then they would happily push all the most addictive drugs to boost profits. That is why we need workers’ control of the production, selling and distribution of all drugs. There should be a licensing system that enables workers and youth to take distribution out of the control of the current dealers and to make sure it is not in the hands of the government.

Local venues should be licensed for drug distribution. Who is licensed should be decided by local organisations of youth, the labour movement and community. That way there will be democratic control over the distribution and sale of drugs that allows neither the state nor drug dealers to abuse it, or if it is legalised, pharmaceutical companies to make profits out of their use.

There should also be a massive expansion of drug treatment facilities, and an end to the present situation where people have to be legally registered with the Home Office to obtain methadone. Treatment for drug addiction is completely inadequate at the moment, and a programme of research into better methods is needed.

People take drugs for any number of reasons. They can be used purely for pleasure or they can be used to escape from reality. If someone’s life has little to offer, drugs can seem to be a way out. Where there are no opportunities, where there is poverty and degradation drugs can be a way of forgetting it for a while.

But however much a drug can make you forget about the harsh realities of your life they never change your situation. Once the effect of the drug wears off you are right back where you started. Worse, the drug can actually start to take control of how you live. It means a never ending round for users of thinking how they can get their next fix and where they can get the money for it.

That is why we say: if excessive drug use, like excessive drinking, stops young people fighting against the system, removes them from life or means they spend all their time out of their heads then it is helping no one except those who exploit and oppress us.

The black youth in the townships of South Africa understood this well. The apartheid government always allowed a certain amount of illegal drinking to go on. Whenever it looked like resistance was increasing the government would allow extra supplies of alcohol to get through to the drinking dens. They hoped the blurred vision of life under apartheid would not look quite so bad.

The youth knew this would weaken the struggle against the apartheid bosses. They would stop people drinking, smashing up the stocks of alcohol when necessary. They took this action not out of any moral fervour, not because they were temperance fanatics, but because it was the only way they could ensure that the community wasn’t completely drunk instead of organising action against the racist oppressors.

Workers Power is not against the recreational use of drugs any more than we are against the recreational use of alcohol. But we don’t believe taking drugs changes the world. Having no control over your life can easily make you think that it doesn’t matter and that you might as well be “out of your head”. This is a waste of life.

Instead of not knowing what’s going on because they are on drugs, youth need to make sure they know exactly what’s going on. Instead of spending all their time incapacitated by drugs, youth need to be changing the world.

There is no better high than a victorious working class struggle. There is no better feeling than being on a well organised picket line, successfully holding off the police from attacking a demonstration or wasting the fascists in open battle.

Don’t let drugs take over your life and stop you from fighting for the revolution!