28.05.1995

Drug legalisation is the opium of the intelligentsia

Drug legalisation is the opium of the intelligentsia
 
LYNETTE BURROWS
 
THE CASE for legalising drugs is being made more frequently and ever more urgently. John Casey's argument, made eloquently in The Daily Tele­graph last week, is simple and almost completely convincing. It is that since we are losing the war against drugs, we should capitulate and concentrate instead on making sure the drugs trade does not hugely enrich a criminal class. Legalis­ing drugs, the argument goes, will make them available on the open market at a reasonable price, cutting out the criminal; it will free police resources and save money; and it will decrease dramatically crimes committed in the furtherance of a drug habit.
 
This argument has not yet suc­ceeded in convincing the public, as many surveys show. One therefore has to ask why it is that the case against legalising drugs — so difficult to frame simply — is strong enough to make most people feel that it is compelling. The answer must be something to do with St Thomas Aquinas's definition of common sense as "the recognition of reality". Most people, he said, could not analyse what they saw as common sense because it was a compendium of so much small-scale observation and experi­ence; but together these things represented reality far more accurately than the crude out­lines of a rationally constructed theory.
 
It is this common sense, for instance, which tells us that drugs are not in the same class as alcohol and that, therefore, to equate banning drugs with pro­hibition in America before the war is false. Alcohol is not some­thing which is inherently dangerous. Used in moderation, like food, it is a blessing and a bene­fit. It was therefore foolish, and harmful, to make its distribu­tion the preserve of criminals.
 
Narcotic drugs, on the other hand, are defined medically as "substances which alter the structure and function of the body", and, as such, they are regarded with fear and distrust by most people; not for moral reasons primarily but because they make the users unpredict­able and literally "inhuman" in their responses. One only has to reflect for a moment on the innu­merable cases, even with drugs still illegal, of motiveless attacks and mindless, excessive violence, including suicide, where the explanation has been that the person was under the influence of drugs. It is not sur­prising that ordinary people fear the consequences of increasing this pool of instability in their midst.
 
"Ah yes," say the pundits, "but this disadvantage will be a small price to pay for the overall decrease in crime which will occur if drugs are legalised, because addicts will not need to rob and mug in order to finance their habit."
 
But there is little evidence to support this argument. Just sup­pose, on the contrary, that people do not rob and mug and become prostitutes in order to fund their drug-taking but that they do these things because they are drug-takers and that they will not stop simply because the drugs are cheaper. Maybe they would not stop even if the drugs were free and handed out like toffee-apples at every street corner. Once they have "altered their conscious­ness" by taking drugs, there will always be something they want — a dress, a drink, a car, a new CD — which costs money, and the absence of paid work, caused by their unemployability as addicts, will ensure that there is always something to commit crime for.
 
Holland is the only country in Europe so far to have taken the plunge and decriminalised at least soft drugs. By all accounts, this has resulted in an enormous increase in the taking of soft drugs, and "hash cafes" have multiplied alarmingly in the last 10 years from a couple of hun­dred to more than 1,500. As is well known, only a small propor­tion of cannabis-users graduate to hard drugs but, inevitably, as the number of pot-smokers increases, so do the numbers of hard-drug takers.
 
No one seems to want to make a connection between this fact and the very surprising statistic that Holland now has a higher murder rate than the United States (Holland has 14-8 mur­ders per 100,000 people; the United States 9-4 per 100,000), but something has caused the normally stolid and sensible Dutch to go ape in this way, and it's a fair guess that drugs have played their part.
 
The next step, therefore, would seem to be for the Dutch to decriminalise hard drugs too in order to reduce crime, but they could only do this if the rest of Europe followed suit; other­wise they would become a mag­net for all drug dealers and takers. So let us suppose for a moment that the rest of Europe does legalise drugs so that their price drops sharply and they can be obtained legally in the same places as soft drugs.
 
The people involved in the business would still be degener­ates, even if they were not crimi­nals. If the whole sorry business were as legal as selling flowers, the people involved in selling rank poison to young people would not be the sort of people you would want to put in charge of your ferrets, let alone be res­ponsible for providing the young with the means of their own destruction.
 
They would be a rotten, degenerate, running sore in the heart of every great city; but they would be legal. Since prof­its would fall as a result of legal­isation, the dealers would look elsewhere to make really big money. How would they do it?
Protection; prostitution; extor­tion; gun-running? One would have to consult the Mafia, who went on being criminals even after alcohol was legalised in America, to find out. One thing is certain: they would not gravi­tate to jobs as gym teachers and factory workers. From the clutches of these creatures will totter the young, befuddled, unemployable, half-alive things that we currently see crashed out in doorways in our cities — only there will be more of them.
 
Accepting that there will prob­ably be a finite number of people who will become drug addicts, who can tell how high that num­ber might be? Certainly it will be considerably higher than it is now, and what are we going to do with them? Treatment, the experts tell us, is vastly expen­sive and only works when they want it to, which, in present cir­cumstances, they do not. As the director of the legal and emer­gency drug service, Belease, said recently, the only reason for taking drugs is enjoyment and, as long as other people keep them in the necessities of life, including drugs, they will con­tinue. But, when we come to count the cost, for how long will that be?
 
The uncomfortable truth is that liberalism has no answer to the drugs problem; just as liber­alism would have had no answer to the problem of highway rob­bery in the 18th century. Prob­ably, the surest and quickest way to find out just how ineffec­tive a tool it has been for the maintenance of civilised life will be to legalise the thing which has accompanied the liberal philosophy from the beginning and will probably be a lasting monument to its demise. Legal­ise — and be damned.