Decriminalizing drugs isn’t all sweetness and light

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Go soft on drugs and we’ll enter a new era where the lamb will lie down with the lion, according to optimists. Crime will drop. The sun will shine. It all looks so compassionate-y and student-y. In the United Kingdom and Australia, though, some influential commentators are more skeptical.

“It all sounds wonderful — but it’s not credible,” argues Alasdair Palmer, the Sunday Telegraph’s Public Policy Editor (UK). “The reason is simple: making an activity legal does not necessarily stop there being a colossal illegal market. Sex between adults is legal, but that has not prevented the development of a huge sex industry, controlled by criminal gangs who kidnap, rape and enslave the girls involved.”

I note that drug-first libertarians point to little soft-on-drugs Portugal as a success. But the picture is complex. Or as Palmer states: “The use of cannabis is up, but more addicts are going to treatment programs.” And what about the alleged drop in heroin-related deaths and the rate of HIV infection?

“This is helpful to the cause of decriminalization, but it doesn’t end the argument,” adds Palmer. “Sweden has one of the lowest rates of drug use in Europe — and also has some of the harshest laws and strongest enforcement. Still, the ‘war on drugs’ hasn’t been won there, any more than it has been won in Portugal.”

For the record, Portugal is an economic basket case. And who pays for so-called marijuana treatment programs? That’s right…financially-stressed working families.


America’s soft-on-drug evangelists (or “harm minimization” missionaries), however, feel called to preach the word (even in Australia). They’ve seen the light, so the world needs to shut up, and follow. But — ask some skeptics — why should we wave white flags?

It’s easy to see why this approach is being challenged. For starters, it looks naïve. The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine of Sydney explains: “The analogy is a gardener who regularly weeds his garden, keeping the problem at bay. But one day he decides: ‘It’s no use. The weeds keep growing no matter what I do, so I’ll just give up weeding.’”

Still: “Drug use will never be eradicated, but no one said it would. That’s the straw man created by Nadelmann and pals. But diligent police and customs work to target dealers, penalize possession, stop drug shipments, and educate young people about the dangers, has been proven to work.”

As well, so-called harm minimization strategies like “safe heroin injecting rooms” fail basic scientific tests and harm businesses. Gary Christian writes in Quadrant magazine: “A prior concern of injecting room critics and of businesses in Kings Cross was that the siting of an injecting room in the midst of profitable businesses, and the drawing of drug users and dealers to its doors, would stifle trade. This is precisely what happened. Yet the myopia of the evaluators led them not to see what was plainly before them.”

Psychologically speaking, there’s a real emotional attachment to politically-correct drug theories, and so, it follows that propaganda and censorship have been recruited to create a new reality. In the name of “liberty” scientific questions are forbidden, and, in the name of “freedom,” damages caused to small family businesses are ritually hidden. Mothering drug addicts has been normalized, and lawyer-approved stories presented as truth.

United Kingdom

The main argument made by the soft-on-drugs crowd goes like this: Drug use is high, so the war on drugs is a failure. But the gardening analogy undermines this theory. And turning to court records and policing facts, in both Australia and the United Kingdom we find that very few users are actually facing a war situation. In reality, the authorities have feminized policing.

Regular users and sellers are mothered by the state, as columnist Peter Hitchens notes in the Mail Online (UK). “For good or ill (and I believe it is for ill, since several such people will end up spending their lives in locked mental wards), a young person who smokes cannabis in private is most unlikely to attract the attention of the law. And if he does, he will not be seriously punished. Is a Cannabis Warning a ‘criminal sanction’ in any true sense? Or even a Caution?”

It all sounds so Orwellian. In a related column, Hitchens points out, “They also babble about a ‘war on drugs.’ Well, if the lavishing of money and social workers on deliberate criminals, who are encouraged to continue in their criminal way, is a ‘war’ then the word doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.”

Realistically, I feel it’s more productive to ask questions like: When was the last time a major drug lord was executed? Perhaps we need to launch an actual war, guard our borders, and deliver tough sentences to repeat offenders, before mothering them.

Ben-Peter Terpstra is a freelance writer based in regional Victoria, Australia. He has lived and worked in the Northern Territory, Melbourne, Kyoto and London (England).