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Why are drugs illegal?

Senior Labour and Tory leaders continue to quote Victorian values regarding drug legalisation unaware that Victorians happily chewed opium and smoked hashish. While drug consumption rises Trevor Turner explores why the laws don't work.

The increasingly public debate about the legalisation of cannabis has tended to follow a few well-worn moral and health arguments. But the changing attitudes of the public, over the last four years, with nearly 50% now amenable to decriminalisation at least, may even be affecting this holier-than-thou Government. In fact, although cautious and pious by nature, Blair almost seems to be promoting these discussions, which bear all the hallmarks of easing the pressure for action while continuing an essentially conservative approach. The fortuitous outburst of Anne Widdecombe, and the late 'downfall' of Michael Portillo, have demonstrated just how embarrassing this whole debate can be for politicians in general. And since most of them have partaken in the 'war on drugs' as a routine rant, for them now to march their soldiers down the hill can only be difficult and embarrassing.

And of course, surely, we all know why drugs should not be made legal? They are dangerous for our health, leading innocent teenagers to freak out and die from ecstasy raves. They are worse than nicotine, apparently, in terms of causing lung cancer and it is 'scientifically proven' that they damage your brain. Cannabis in particular is seen as the gateway to addiction, since surveys of what might be termed end-user addicts all show the journey starting with smoking pot before the dark valley of heroin, cocaine, self-injecting, HIV and death. No matter how much the protagonists for legalisation might argue that drugs are nothing to do with morality, and that health issues could be best addressed - for example as with nicotine and alcohol dependence - in a non-criminalised world, the traditionalists will not yield. They quote Victorian values, unaware that Victorians happily chewed opium, drank laudanum, smoked hashish, and experimented with cocaine without the whiff of a policeman on their shoulder.

But perhaps the most important issue in the drugs debate is not morality, or health, or protecting your children, it is surely money. A number of countries now largely survive off this black economy, especially in the third world. The most dangerous and lawless country of all, Colombia, is able to ship its most valued product via an armada of planes, ships, and technology that dwarfs even what the United States can put up. Money laundering has become a core financial activity, in every part of the banking world, and tinpot offshore tax havens are allowed to flourish because the very rich need them. And maybe it is worth asking apparently stupid questions, like: "how useful is it for globalised capital to have enormous sums of 'black' money swilling around in the system?

One of the most striking aspects of the illegality of certain drugs is the effect this policy has had on criminal activities. Why bother to hold up a train or rob a bank when a couple of shipments of cocaine can make you more than a millionaire? Organised crime, as "The Godfather" movies told us several decades ago, is virtually coterminous with the importation of illegal drugs. And the Mafia have long been in debt to the era of prohibition in America for their establishment as an extremely wealthy collection of organisations. In fact this model historical example, of what happens when the law is used as a misguided moral agent, to deprive people of an activity that has no intrinsic immorality, can also help us understand what is happening today. That is to say, we can expect a rising tide of gang-related murders, smartly dressed hoodlums and the criminalisation of otherwise ordinary citizens.

Because we now have an international financial system of such size and complexity that it is very happy to have big investors who may need to remain anonymous. Not only do drug warlords have to employ smart lawyers, bankers and stock-brokers to 'invest' their capital, but they also make profits in a different league from your day-to-day commercial organisation. Capitalism, in both its primitive and advanced forms, has always admired the entrepreneur and the speculator. Terms like 'boardroom battle' and 'blood on the carpet' are regularly used by financial journalists to describe business machinations, and the 'captains of industry' like to see themselves as toughened buccaneers, carving out new markets like the slave traders of old. The drugs trade thus fuels arcane and complex trading arrangements, via 'shell' companies or 'junk' bonds or whatever, while lending an alluring aura of danger and serious personal enrichment.

Another aspect of the illegalisation process can even be seen as a form of neo-imperialism. What on earth would happen to Europe's wine lake? What about all that tobacco investment, if people started regularly using the cannabis sativa and coca plants of the third world? These can be seen as natural exports for a number of countries, just as coffee comes from Brazil, yet farmers are impoverished by attempts at eradication, or enforced alternative crops. The social and economic soul sickness of inner city U.S.A. (and Europe) is somehow blamed on cash crop farmers, living perhaps a more equable and adjusted life style than their bored, aetiolated, morbidly individualistic cousins in the North.

There is also a strong element of racism in this. Not content with the globalisation policies that have led to such outbursts of anger as seen in Seattle and Genoa, our political masters portray the products of the third world as essentially corrupting. This can be translated into stereotypes of black men smoking weed, or Colombians snorting coke, stereotypes that reinforce the location of evil in non-Europeans. There is nothing new in this, reflecting as it does the Victorian imposition of opium on the Chinese, and the imputation that such a civilisation was inherently evil. The fact that alcohol for example is metabolically difficult for some non-European peoples, as a pleasant and anxiety-relieving substance, is rarely considered relevant.

Along with this approach, of course, is the extraordinary array of legal, custodial, excise and other officials employed in the suppression of drug use. Most grotesque in the context of the USA, with its two million plus prison population, the fact of the matter is that drug usage / abuse accounts for about 50% of inmates in prisons. Most cynical of all, is the well-known acceptance that drug usage is rife in prisons, because it makes life easier for everyone, especially the prison officers. Yet ask the Home Office to publish any kind of study of urine drug screens, on inmates (and they have been done), and there would be a wall of embarrassed silence. But having raised this army of law enforcement agencies, what are governments supposed to do when they are not needed? The notion that they might be more usefully employed in terms of treating those people who do become addicted by drugs, that is in terms of therapy and support rather than suppression, may be somewhat difficult to establish. After all, many drug enforcement officers are admirable, highly moral, committed individuals, who put their lives on the line to bring the 'evil drug barons' to justice. How do you unpick this state-sanctioned commitment to the moral cause of 'saving the children'?

Reframing the drugs debate, therefore, it is possible to see it as the abuse of a moral crusade amongst the good-hearted to generate a law that enables a subterranean form of high capitalism. While officially happy to go along with the 'third way', that blends the drive of the profit motive with social concern and a general improvement in standards of living for most people, the dark side of entrepreneurism has always looked for exploitable evasions and new methods of doing business. The creeping regulations imposed by social democracy have led, perhaps fortuitously, to a drugs-funded black market that is wonderfully convenient. In this sense the 'war on drugs' can bear comparison to the mass propaganda of George Orwell's 1984. At the moment we are at war with Eastasia, but it might as well be Eurasia, or Oceania, and anyhow, do we even know what country we are living in?

All of which makes it even more imperative that we somehow persuade the Blair Government to get on with the legalisation of cannabis, and other drugs, as soon as possible. Apart from the enhanced tax take, and the reduction in legal and custodial costs, we should be able to get a reasonably clear picture of the current global balance of trade. There might be a chance for some Third World economies to develop, and it might be possible to divert some of that laundered drug money into health and taxable resources. The extent to which capitalism, for better or worse, depends on addiction to fuel its expansion might also emerge. But therein lies the problem. The 24 hour international finance/stocks/futures markets are hooked on drugs money and its consequences. So perhaps health is the reason for making drugs illegal? But the health in question is not yours or mine, it is the health of a financial system that needs all the drug warlords it can get.

Dr Trevor Turner is a consultant psychiatrist in East London.

September/October 2001