UK drug legalisation: the grimmer lessons from around the world

Yemenis gather at a shop selling khat, a mild drug used daily by most Yemenis

Like anyone who prefers government to leave us alone where possible, I find myself in a dilemma over last week’s report by the UK Drug Policy Commission. It recommends scrapping criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs, arguing that the £3 billion a year Britain spends fighting the drug trade could be better spent on treatment.

Sensible enough, surely. After all, the liberal inside me says that letting people make up their own minds about drugs is generally a good thing, while the free marketeer knows that interfering in supply and demand is never easy. The Economist, a magazine I greatly admire, has argued for drug legalisation for decades, as too now are growing numbers of developing world leaders, who want to stop drug wars tearing their countries apart. Anyone who’s followed the carnage that cocaine trafficking is currently wreaking in Mexico, or seen, as I have, how it’s corrupting entire West African governments, may find it hard to disagree.

And yet somehow, I do. Because for all Commission’s careful analysis – their report is the result of six years’ research – their conclusions remain somewhat theoretical. The fact remains that legalising or decriminalising drugs would still be a giant leap into the unknown.

Yes, we can draw on lessons from the likes of Portugal, Holland and Switzerland, all of which have experimented with drug decriminalisation programmes, often successfully. But what works for one country does not necessarily work for another. Especially when it comes to our different national predilections for getting out of our heads.

Just look at Britain’s moves a few years ago to allow all-day drinking and later licensing in pubs. It was done in the hope that that people might actually booze less, by fostering a culture of unhurried, Mediterranean-style drinking, where a glass or two of Chablis would last all night. Instead, most Brits drink just as voraciously as before, only longer and later. We are just as keen when it comes to recreational drugs, topping many European league tables for marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine use.

In other words, we Brits – or many of us at least – are a bunch of serious caners. Boozers, ravers and fiends. We like doing stuff to excess, and we do it a lot more than most of our continental cousins. It follows, therefore, that policies that might work for a Portuguese heroin addict, or a Dutch dopehead, may not work here.

We should also remember that booze, for all the Saturday night punch-ups and violent domestics it causes, is actually a relative success in Britain. Given the millions of Britons who drink each week, only a relatively small minority get into trouble. Thanks to it having been part of our culture for centuries, we have both licensing laws and a health system that help regulate our consumption and promote awareness of the risks. Yes, we may ignore the rules most weekends, and, what the hell, a couple of week nights too, but at least we know what the rules are, with our 21 units a week, our grain-after-our-grape, our pint of water before bedtime and so on.

Decriminalisation, however, would change everything. The working assumption for the authorities would have to be that there could be a big increase in use, as people who were previously deterred by illegality began indulging. How much punchier would market towns be after midnight on a Saturday, for example, if the average male reveller had had half a gram of coke as well as six pints of Stella? Once again, we can’t really be certain, and there are few templates in any other country to give us a clue.

What is clear, though, is that the few nations where drugs, rather than booze, are the intoxicant of choice, do not make particularly encouraging examples. Alcohol is at least an honest poison: anyone who over-indulges will suffer a hangover the next day, which acts as a built-in limiter on consumption (I am writing this blog post, for example, with a foul headache from last night’s mix of beer, vodka, wine and beer again, and have no intention of going near any of them tonight). Other substances, such as opium, marijuana, and khat, the amphetamine-filled leaf popular in Somalia and Yemen, exact no such immediate penalties on the constitution. Instead, they act in a much more insidious fashion, which can allow their use to become far more widespread.

Take Iran, for example, where alcohol is officially banned, but where opium is easily available from over the Afghan border. As I reported during a visit there in 2008, the country now has around two million opium addicts, and in towns like Aradan, doctors estimate that 50 per cent of the population are hooked, much to the embarrassment of President Ahmadinejad, whose birthplace it is. True, the Iranian government executes large numbers of drug smugglers every year, which many take as proof that law enforcement solutions don’t work. But for Mr Ahmadinejad, that’s just one way of looking at it. While executing drug dealers doesn’t entirely eradicate the presence of drugs in Iran, removing the death penalty could increase it, creating even more junkies in his home town.

Even less encouraging is the picture in Yemen and Somalia, the only two countries I know of where psychotropic drugs are a mainstream national pastime. For the benefit of those who have never tried it (and who can’t be bothered to read my book about Somalia), chewing khat makes you feel sociable and euphoric: Westerners often liken it to a mild form of ecstasy. Everyone from taxi drivers to government ministers indulges, and for visiting journalists, taking part in a communal “chew” can be a great way to get interviewees to open up.

However, the fact that khat has no immediately debilitating side-effects – save for aching jaws for novices like me – means that Yemenis and Somalis are prone to overindulging, to the point where it has seriously cramped their work ethic. Trying to get anything done after 2pm is all but impossible, as most menfolk, rich and poor, are busy chewing. Thanks to khat’s amphetamine effect, afternoon sessions will also often go on into the small hours, and while it doesn’t necessarily stop people going into work the next day, they’re seldom at their best.

In effect, both countries have become somewhat like the mythical Land of the Lotus Eaters, their people spending much of their time in a benign stupor that may not render them entirely incapable, but certainly saps their potential. Yes, of course, somewhere like Yemen is very different to the UK. But if anyone wants to know what a society where drugs are an accepted part of life looks like, this is a glimpse. It may not be the end of civilisation as we know it, but it isn’t exactly the pinnacle either.


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