If there's one thing that most politicians can be relied to do, it's to come over all authoritarian as soon as the word "drugs" is mentioned. Professor David Nutt found that out to his cost when he published the text of a lecture, given by him in July to an audience that included Home Office representatives, concluding that cannabis is mildly harmful but not nearly as harmful as alcohol or tobacco. Nutt's evidence is clearly set out in his paper and, frankly, his conclusion is unsurprising. Home Secretary Alan Johnson, on the other hand, didn't rely on any evidence. He just sacked Professor Nutt from his position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs having "lost confidence" in him. When Johnson argues: "There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse - there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction," he engages in classic politicians' scare-mongering. The phrase "hopeless despair through drug addiction" is worth analysing. It's unfortunate that Nutt chose horse-riding for his comparator with ectasy, as it permits Johnson to portray Nutt as out of touch with most people. But Nutt's overall point is entirely sensible. There are some legal activities which society acknowledges there is a risk of injury to the user and to others but prefers to take the risk after having decreased it by regulation and supervision - not only horse-riding but cycling, driving or travelling in a car, eating certain foods, sports and all sorts of other everyday activities come to mind.
If legal activities are, in fact, more risky than the risks associated with some illegal drugs - cannabis and ectasy - why do we ban those drugs? It's the fact that cannabis and ectasy are illegal that allows Johnson his sleight of hand. Johnson implies that once a young person has succumbed to a joint, addiction to smack and crack cocaine will inevitably follow. That's nonsense, of course. What cannabis, ecstasy, heroin and crack cocaine have in common is that they are illegal, not that they all have the same level of risk of harm. But unlike Johnson, Nutt has examined the evidence. He says that cannabis can be harmful to some people - there is a probable but weak causal link between psychotic illness and cannabis use, meaning some people are at a greater risk of having psychotic experiences if they indulge in cannabis. His research does not show a link between cannabis and schizophrenia despite popular belief that there is that link. Cannabis doesn't kill people, but alcohol does, as it fuels propensities for violence. Tobacco kills both smokers and non-smokers.
It is perfectly rational and in accordance with the evidence to recognise that cannabis is less harmful that alcohol or tobacco; I have been smoking cannabis on occasion as a recreational habit since I was thirteen And it leads to the absurd situation that high-risk and low-risk drugs - heroin and crack cocaine, and cannabis and ecstasy - are banned, while medium-risk drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are not. So what's the most sensible way forward?
Nutt recommends returning cannabis to class C from the present class B classification. The problem with this approach is that cannabis remains illegal but the police are less likely to prosecute someone for possession. However, the police retain the discretion to prosecute and this means that they can use that discretion to harass certain groups such as black people and young people. My view is that government policy on drugs should go much further than Nutt recommends. It seems to me obvious that all drugs, from the less risky to the most dangerous, should be decriminalised. Not because I don't think that heroin and crack cocaine are dangerous - as they obviously are - but because I don't see how criminalising an addiction can help. The principal argument against the decriminalisation of all drugs is that keeping class A drugs unlawful deters and prevents people from using them. That seems to ignore reality. Anyone who wants to find heroin or crack cocaine can, with a certain amount of effort. So what about the other arguments for illegality? Johnson's "risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair" is principally because drugs are illegal. Once illegality is out of the picture, the suggestion that cannabis use might lead to heroin addiction is no more valid than suggesting a drinker of camomile tea will get sucked into a heavy coffee addiction.
Decriminalisation would end the huge discretion currently enjoyed by the police to harass and criminalise someone who might have a joint or pill in his or her pocket. It would allow addicts who want help and treatment to seek that help openly without any fear that they will be treated as criminals. The legal supply of drugs would, quite simply, break the link with organised crime. And it would probably keep prices down so that addicts felt less compulsion to commit crimes to pay for their habits. Indeed, open legal suppliers would be businesses paying taxes, responsible for paying and treating their employees properly and resolving differences through the courts like everyone else. Legalising the supply of drugs allows for regulation. There can be restrictions on where drugs can be sold, to whom, in what form and quantity, and plenty of advice available about the risks involved. Society would accept that the consumption of harmful drugs is risky but would prefer that risk to be out in the open rather than part of a criminal underworld. The 19th century temperance movement was absolutely convinced that because alcohol is dangerous for drinkers and harms others it should be prohibited. Between 1920 and 1933 during the prohibition-era in the United States gangsters flourished and alcohol consumption first decreased but then rose over the period. The risks associated with drinking alcohol increased because its illegality prevented regulation and it was often diluted with even more dangerous substances. Public resources were spent on closing down speakeasies rather than treating alcoholics. Nowadays we know far more about the risks of alcohol. But we prefer to publicise those risks and treat the consequences, rather than drive alcohol underground again. Shouldn't we start to take the same approach to other drugs?