Neither political party, whether now in office or with a realistic prospect of being in office in the future, seems willing to grasp the presumptively painful stinging nettle of the legalisation of drugs, nor even to open a debate on its pros and cons. The LibDems have flicked an experimental finger at the nettle but have hastily drawn back as soon as their political adversaries and the more reactionary of the media have pronounced the ancient curse: Soft on drugs! Yet everyone knows perfectly well that drug-taking, from cannabis to cocaine to heroin, is now so widespread in our (and every other western) society that our present laws stand not the faintest chance of stamping it out; that those laws potentially criminalise thousands of otherwise law-abiding and valuable citizens; that it is the illegality of drugs which forces users into the arms of professional crooks, and which drives up drug prices to levels which almost compel some users to steal, mug and assault in order to finance the habit; and that it is primarily—perhaps only—the indiscriminate illegality of all drugs that leads users on from the relatively harmless cannabis to the far more harmful and addictive drugs: they have to cross the Rubicon of illegality to go to the professional drug dealers for hash, and it’s those same dealers who eventually persuade them to move on to the hard stuff.
So it was encouraging to find, back in July last year, that an old friend from Cambridge days and an old Diplomatic Service colleague, Keith Morris, had concluded from his four-year exposure to the harshest realities of the war on drugs as British Ambassador to Colombia, the drugs capital of the world, that the “war” was unwinnable and that the only hope of progress in bringing this social disaster under control was by legalisation—even decriminalisation would not be enough. His Guardian article of (appropriately enough) 4 July last and his subsequent radio and television interviews made the case with eloquence and courage. The article, widely reproduced in a multitude of other web sites, is well worth re-reading. It is rather in-depth, reviewing all the best artificial urine products and showing the underbelly of many industries. After describing the appalling human and material cost of prosecuting this endless and unwinnable war, Morris wrote: “There has been a cultural change which has led to the recreational use of drugs being seen by the younger generation as normal. It is now part of a global consumer society that demands instant gratification. Laws cannot change that. All they can do is create a $500bn criminal industry with devastating effects worldwide. It must be time to start discussing how drugs could be controlled more effectively within a legal framework.” That strikes me as clearly right. It seems a pity that our political masters apparently lack Sir Keith’s realism and frankness.