With the economy on the brink of collapse, the government has turned to exploring new alternative sources of revenue – expansion of an enterprise finance guarantee and enhanced capital allowances for new businesses are just some of the investments made by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne’s Budget released last March. But one such issue has failed to rear its ugly head, despite calls for it to be addressed in late 2010.
The legalisation of drugs is a highly contentious topic that has divided experts and analysts. A quick delve into the pages of history exposes the destructive power of both legalisation and prohibition – opium was legalised in China in the 19th Century after two nasty Opium Wars with the British Empire, resulting in approximately 90 million addicts. Prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America spawned the birth of bootlegging – harnessed by the Mafioso – which laid the foundations of the lucrative Black Market. Most people are aware of the negative aspects of drugs, but what if legalising and taxing them could ignite a new era of a prosperous economy, cleaner streets and friendlier neighbours?
Studies have shown that by implementing and incorporating factors such as taxation, inflation adjustment and savings made due to societal costs, the legalisation of illegal drugs in the UK could potentially bring in revenue of £5bn. That would rank it as one of the highest contributors to the British economy, alongside two other drug giants – tobacco and alcohol. It has been suggested by a comprehensive report that a legalised, regulated market could save the country around £14bn. It takes into account the costs of policing and investigating drugs users and dealers to processing them through the courts and their eventual incarceration, as well as the potential tax revenue. However, medical treatment for drug users in Britain would likely foot a hefty bill.
One of the main arguments against legalisation is the detrimental effects drugs have on our health – there are currently 280,000 people in the UK addicted to Class A drugs and their habit cost the NHS £560m last year. But compare that to the medical costs of alcohol (£2.7bn) and smoking (£5bn), and it would appear that drinking, one of our nation’s favourite pursuits, is costing the taxpayer almost five times as much as the likes of heroin and crack.
If legalisation were to come into force, it is reasonable to suspect that the number of addicts in this country would take a trip skyward, but the rate of drug-related crime would undoubtedly plummet. Organised crime syndicates acquire billions in profit from the harvesting, exporting and selling of illegal drugs. A government regulated drug trade would sever these ties, forcing them out of business, and cripple this seedy underworld.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a charity dedicated to the promotion of drug regulation, believes that the illegality of drugs is the root of a large proportion of crime in the UK. Co-founder Jolene Crawford lost a family member to drugs, and since then has been devoted to lobbying the government through her foundation.
“The price of illegal drugs is determined by a demand-led, unregulated market. Using illegal drugs is very expensive. This means that some dependent users resort to stealing to raise funds (accounting for 50% of UK property crime – estimated at £2bn a year). Most of the violence associated with illegal drug dealing is caused by its illegality.”
She has faith that if legalisation was sanctioned, crime rates would fall, allowing police to get on with more pressing matters.
“Legalisation would enable us to regulate the market, determine a much lower price and remove users’ need to raise funds through crime. Our legal system would be freed up and our prison population dramatically reduced, saving billions.”
Transform also blame the high prices of drugs for the rise in drug-related deaths. These have risen by 19% in the last decade, and could possibly be attributed to the fact that drug-peddlers take to diluting expensive drugs in order to increase productivity and maintain attractive prices to buyers. This does nothing to help eradicate the ever increasing dangers of illegal drugs.
The practice of needle sharing in intravenous drug users also leads to the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Transform would like to see sterile, medically approved needles provided for addicts who need them.
“Prohibition has led to the stigmatisation and marginalisation of drug users. Countries that operate ultra-prohibitionist policies have very high rates of HIV infections amongst injecting users. Hepatitis C rates amongst users in the UK are increasing substantially.
“In the UK in the 80s clean needles for injecting users and safer sex education for young people were made available in response to fears of HIV. Harm reduction policies are in direct opposition to prohibitionist laws.”
Russell Brand, actor, comedian, and former heroin addict, challenged to government’s method of tackling drug addiction last month, appealing to the Home Affairs select committee for more compassion to be shown in relation to drug addiction. He condemned the amount of money spent on “nicking people for possession”, and would rather see that money being spent on drug rehabilitation and education facilities for addicts. Steps have been taken to change the government’s views on drug users by United Nations agencies such as Unicef and the World Health Organisation, who last March issued a joint statement urging member states to ‘close compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres and implement voluntary evidence-informed and rights-based health and social services in the community’.
In the grand scheme of things, there is no evidence to show that prohibition works. In the 40 years since President Nixon declared his indomitable ‘War on Drugs’ to be in effect, trillions of dollars have been squandered on failed drug busts, ineffective laws have been passed, police time and resources have been wasted through misdirected activity, human rights have been violated, dangers have increased – the list goes on. The government needs to reject the stigma attached to drugs and instead adopt a policy of educating society in matters pertaining to drugs openly, honestly and truthfully. Legalisation displays an array of possibilities that if they are met with a level of rationale and open-mindedness, might just pave the way to making our country great again.