Groundbreaking editorial from the Times.

June 16 2016, The Times

Breaking Good

Public health officials have seen the logic of decriminalising illegal drugs. This is an important step towards putting violent gangs out of business.

Would it ever make sense to jail a chain-smoker for smoking or an alcoholic for touching drink? On the basis that the answer is no, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is urging the government to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all illegal drugs. This is radical advice, but also sound. Ministers should give it serious consideration.

Prosecutions in Britain for small-scale personal cannabis use are already rare. To this extent the new proposals would not do much more than bring the statute book up to date with the status quo in most parts of the country. But the change the RSPH has in mind would go much further. It would push Britain into a small group of countries that have switched from regarding the use of drugs including heroin, cocaine and ecstasy as a health issue rather than one of criminal justice.

This is not a switch to be taken lightly, nor one the Home Office under present management is likely to take without sustained pressure from elsewhere in government. Yet the logic behind it and evidence from elsewhere are persuasive. Indeed, the government should be encouraged to think of decriminalisation not as an end in itself but as a first step towards legalising and regulating drugs as it already regulates alcohol and tobacco.

The RSPH’s model is a drug decriminalisation initiative in Portugal that is now 15 years old. Since 2001 possession of even hard drugs in Portugal has meant at most a small fine and, more likely, referral to a treatment programme. It does not earn the user a criminal record. More importantly, as of last year the country’s drug-related death rate was three per million citizens compared with ten per million in the Netherlands and 44.6 in Britain. Recreational drug use has not soared, as critics of decriminalisation had feared. HIV infection rates have fallen and the use of so-called legal highs is, according to a study last year, lower than in any other European country.

From a public health point of view the Portuguese approach is working so well that the question arises why it has tank British officials so long to seek to copy it. As they note, lower incarceration rates contribute to lower addiction rates since prison exposes inmates to more drugs. Prison also ruptures families, interferes with education and lowers the chances of employment. Less time inside prison means more hope for drug users trying to rebuild their lives and less crowded prisons.

For these reasons the RSPH is right to highlight Portugal’s successes. Ministers, however, need to see the bigger picture. This model decriminalises drug use but not supply, and the RSPH report specifies that “dealers, suppliers and importers of illegal substances would still be actively pursued and prosecuted”. It may be politic not to rush discussion of full legalisation but that should still be the ultimate goal. In the long term it is not tenable to decriminalise possession of a substance while preserving the profit motive of the criminal gangs that supply it.

The example of the Netherlands bears this out. Like Portugal, Dutch authorities have decriminalised most drug use while continuing to pursue dealers and kingpins. As a result even though more users are in treatment and drug abuse among teenagers has fallen, Amsterdam has become a hub of organised crime in which traffickers trade people and guns as well as drugs.

Leaving distribution and supply to criminal cartels ultimately leaves drug-producing states at their mercy, as Mexico and Afghanistan attest. The solution is not to return to the international drug wars of past decades, which proved unwinnable. It is to move gradually towards legalised supply chains such as those allowed for cannabis in Uruguay and a minority of US states. The lesson of the drug wars is that a legal drug trade can hardly be worse than an illegal one.