War on drugs: Fighting a losing battle

Around £1.1bn was spent last year by the UK government on a war. Government spending on conflict in this area and dealing with its effects has been growing ever since the beginning of the 20th century. The effects of this war are devastatingly wide-ranging, from its obvious impact on society to the less apparent ones on the environment. And yet, very few people know much about the reasoning behind the war, how we got into this situation, or why we’re even in the war in the first place. I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, or any military conflict for that matter. I’m talking about the ‘war on drugs’.

This nonsensically-proclaimed ‘war’ is the result of decades of wilfully ignorant government policy on the criminalisation and illegalisation of various substances, generally as a reaction to popular opinion. Such a bizarre form of policy-making dates back to the twenties; in 1928, cannabis was criminalised as part of a global crackdown on the use of opium, mainly because the public got confused and thought that opium and cannabis were the same because both substances were associated with immigrants.

Fast forward eighty years to 2008, and the then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith decides to un-downgrade cannabis to a Class B substance (it had previously been downgraded to Class C by David Blunkett in 2004). This was done despite advice to the contrary from a government advisory council. The Home Office press release makes laughable reading: although they recognise cannabis use had fallen since its reclassification in 2004, they note that “the reduction […] must not be allowed to reverse”, hence the change in policy. To a less successful one.

A year later, David Nutt, a government advisor on drugs and a Professor at Imperial College, London, claimed that according to his research, many illegal drugs including cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, were less harmful than tobacco and alcohol. The following day, Alan Johnson sacked him for damaging “efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs.” I, for one, think that he was a Nuttjob for doing so.

This potted (and by no means comprehensive) history of government drug policy serves to demonstrate the confusion and lunacy of decisions made by ministers. The main problem here appears to be the wrong approach to the entire purpose of drug laws. Many ministers of recent times have been led into the temptation of wielding power and using drug policy as a deterrent to crack down on people using potentially harmful substances. By doing so they’ve opened up yet another way in which the state can control what we can and can’t do with our own bodies. I’ve never taken an illegal drug, nor am I inclined to do so, but who are ministers to deny me the right to smoke a joint every now and again? It wouldn’t harm me any more than alcohol or tobacco would, and it definitely wouldn’t harm anyone else.

In fact, the criminalisation of substances such as cannabis actually causes more harm than good. The use of chemical agents in government attempts to eradicate cannabis in Columbia has affected biodiversity in the world’s second most biodiverse country. Toxic waste from drug production driven underground in the USA is disposed of illegally and ends up contaminating mains water supplies. The illegal drug industry turns over around $330bn annually, and undermines the global economy through corruption and the funding many regional conflicts.

I’m not arguing here for the reclassification, decriminalisation or legalisation of any specific substance, because that’s not the point. The point is that there are other people doing so, and they know more about these things than I do because they’ve got degrees and stuff in this sort of thing. It’s about time the government ministers realised this, and listened to evidence on the harm caused by drugs, instead of taking their policy from the headlines of British tabloids.


  1. Great to see some sense finally spoken on this issue!

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  2. In addition to the many societal costs of prohibition, it has a long history of driving the spread of harder or more dangerous drugs.

    Marijuana to dangerous synthetic concoctions —such as AM-2201, spice, or bath salts.
    Poppies to morphine, to heroine, to krokodil.
    Coca to cocaine, to crack, to Paco/Kete/Bazuco/Pitillo.
    Ephedra to ephedrine, to speed, to methamphetamine.
    Mushrooms to ecstasy (MDMA), to PMMA, to 2CB/designers.

    At every step the reasons for the rise in popularity of the new form of the drug are one or more of the following:

    * It may be easier to smuggle.
    * It may be more addictive, thus compelling the buyer to return more frequently.
    * It may be cheaper to produce, therefore yielding more profit.
    * Like a game of “whack a mole” a shutdown of producers in one area will mean business opportunities for another set of producers with a similar product.

    Prohibition’s distortion of the immutable laws of ‘supply and demand’ subsidizes organized crime, foreign terrorists, corrupt cops, and unconscionable politicians, while feeding the prejudices of self-appointed culture warriors everywhere. So called Tough-On-Drugs politicians have happily built careers on confusing prohibition’s horrendous collateral damage with the substances that they claim to be fighting while the big losers in this battle are everybody else, especially we the taxpayers.

    So how come so many of us have been deluded into believing that big government is the appropriate response to non-traditional consensual vices?

    Imagine if we were to chop down every single tree on the planet as a response to our failure to prevent tree-climbing accidents. That’s what our misguided drug policy looks like.
    Isn’t it time we all stood up and told the government, we’re tired of being beaten and jailed so that pharmaceutical companies can poison and kill us for obscene profits?

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  3. Excellent article. I hope all students vote in support of an evidence-based drugs policy in the latest referendum.

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