Are Prohibitionists the Gangster, Terrorist and Dealer’s Best Friends?

The forces of prohibition in the UK whilst somewhat diminished in power and stature still command a great deal of influence over parts of the media and politics. Whilst a gradual shift in attitudes is taking place around the world, the real cracks in prohibition are yet to appear in the UK.

One champion of prohibition, the journalist Peter Hitchens' (noted Mail on Sunday columnist) favourite pronouncements is that the War on Drugs was "The War We Never Fought". Likewise that drug use is "immoral". He seems to harbour a particular hatred and loathing for cannabis and has in his columns linked its use to mental illness, suggesting more recently some sort of a connection with religious violence. Hitchens is by far and away the most coherent and dogged of prohibitionists in the UK and there can be little doubt to his sincerity even if we disagree with his views. However his and the wider Prohibition camp's views have failed to evolve in the wake of scientific studies or the events of countries successfully pursuing some form of decriminalisation.

Drug use and Immorality

Morality is of course subjective, cultural but ultimately personal. There are religious and secular sources for it, it changes over time, it cannot be said to be static or a universal certainty in the hearts and minds of all men and women in one city, let alone a country. When someone says that drug use is immoral, what they mean is that it does not suit their morality and therefore it should not suit yours. By Hitchens' own admission, many of his positions on the world are based upon adherence to what he perceives as the teachings of the Anglican church. The UK at least is officially a christian country, so he perhaps has something there when referring to morality. Except of course that the Church of England has offered some decidedly anti prohibition views. It is well worth reading the following link from 2002:

Perhaps the most salient paragraph is found here, underlining and bold is my own emphasis:

"Our final two points concern the availability of drugs. We support the Runciman Inquiry's recommendations on Pages 115-116 of their report that 'the possession of cannabis should not be an imprisonable offence.' (Para 77 ii). We also wish to support some of the cogent argument of Peter Lilley MP in his Audenshaw Paper 193, where he says that inebriation is regarded as a sin because it can lead to more serious wrongdoing. Alcohol inebriation has long been associated with violence in some cases, and it is possible that cannabis abuse could sometimes have harmful effects. However that is a matter for personal responsibility, guided by moral imperatives. Abuse, which is a sin, is not necessarily a crime: adultery is wrong, but it is not a crime. Murder is both a sin and a crime, by definition. We believe that it is time to decriminalize the possession of cannabis, for the following reasons. It leads to disrespect for the law among young people; it is enforced in a random manner; there is no link between cannabis and the use of hard drugs except for a tiny minority, which is a point Dr Leech has repeatedly made (Drugs and The Church page 17). Indeed the criminalisation of cannabis makes the association with hard drugs perversely more likely. Legislation is being used here to govern morality, and the indication is that it sets up greater problems in the future. We do take seriously the point that young people may be encouraged to use cannabis more heavily if this legislative change takes place, and we believe that even greater drug education is necessary in schools and with young people. We therefore support the Runciman Inquiry on the question of decriminalization."

Hitchens' next regularly made point is that it is immoral to break the law, that the law is somehow sacred and a constant respect of it is the only thing holding us all back from bacchanalian carnage. It is obviously true that without the law then there would be many problems and society would quickly fall apart. There are problems here though, firstly in accepting that every law made is made for a just purpose and that every law remains relevant and fit for purpose. People privately indulging in something that overwhelming scientific wisdom and that a large part of society would define as harmless or at worse of a very mild risk without an impact on others cannot surely be seen as a worthy target for the law to prioritise.

Much of the social progress that we now celebrate like universal suffrage and improved civil rights was born out of transgression of the law. The same country (the UK) that today is (sometimes) outspoken in defending gay rights is the same country that not so long ago held that consenting homosexuality was a criminal offence, originally an offence punishable by death, then "only" by imprisonment. These laws were based on views derived from moral sources, that were seen as being for the good of society. Society has changed, morality has changed ergo the law has changed.

The philosopher Henry David Thoreau said:

“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?”

What we see here is that society has changed and a recognition that the morality around drug use is changing in the UK, there is much however to suggest that the UK is a long way behind other parts of Europe and America. Yet even right wing sources in this country are beginning to admit that the sort of harm that prohibition causes is not worth it for whatever benefits prohibitionists perceive as taking place. When it is the case that the majority of the country recognises that the war in drugs has been an abject and embarrassing failure, it is surely time to stop repeating yesterday's mistake.

Another common prohibitionist point is that self stupefaction or intoxication is immoral and wrong. This is because it harms the user who will need to be repaired or cared for by society, it also distracts the user from the world we live in and therefore from a meaningful participation in life. The notion that cannabis is harmful is at best a silly one, there are reams of studies praising its health benefits and countering claims as to its harm. But even if assuming that it potentially is harmful to the extent that prohibitionists believes it to be, we in the UK live in a society with access to many much more dangerous things which we are trusted and judged to be able to administer and moderate for ourselves. Where the state has desired change in these habits it has pursued them via pricing reform and support for users. Tobacco smoking has dropped by leaps and bounds over the past thirty years because of education and a sensible model of control that allows regulated access to the adult population -not a blanket ban or increasingly harsh mechanisms of punishment.

Next is the notion that the legal principle of prohibition has never been truly enforced, that penalties already weak have diminished and further diminished over the years, amounting to an informal decriminalisation or permission to ignore any notion of censure or sanction for drug use and especially for cannabis use. It is true as a country we have moved away from hard labour, treadmills and prison sentences dished out at the drop of a hat, this is true for many minor offences not just possession of some dried plant material. This is part of a wider approach to crime, punishment and rehabilitation than a conspiracy to secretly experiment with decriminalisation. The idea that people are not arrested, fined or imprisoned for cannabis every day is wishful thinking at best and outright delusion if sincerely believed. Just open a local newspaper and check.

A core basis of the original creation of the police in this country is the idea of policing by consent, that people are broadly happy with the laws they live under as the protection and value of them are self evident, knowledge that if you are attacked you will be protected and your assailant will be captured and prosecuted for instance. The laws being both useful and reassuring to the population and not a threat or weapon so as to coerce and enforce behaviour. Essentially the assumption that members of society wish to contribute to that society and live well within it and to not need to be made to do or not do anything by threat. Standards are clearly drawn and are for the benefit of all. The government and the law in this model seeks to represent and protect its people. Prohibition very much stands out as distinct, created not as a genuine law to protect the UK's citizens but as adherence to international convention.

Prohibitionists (unsurprisingly) never seem to feel casually about cannabis or other drugs, it is the case that they hold that drugs are only ever very dangerous and cannot be used safely. In some respects for this they cannot be faulted, people after all hold many passions, it is true that many substances have the potential for extreme abuse and to cause problems far across society. But of course the forsaking of control over the drugs trade is the absolutely fundamental error of prohibition. One of the few things that Nick Clegg has ever said with much weight to it is "Put simply, if you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform". Whether we are talking about cannabis or all drugs, a poorly designed policy like prohibition cannot be well applied. For all the moral stance taken by prohibitionists, they provide no explanation or counter balance for the rise in problematic users of heroin and crack, the money made illegally or the continuing rise in associated crimes such as acquisitive theft to fuel addictions. If you purely want to reduce drug use, you have to regulate and control it. If you are more concerned about how you appear morally than the human results of your policy then you cannot actually be that concerned about the effects of drug use. It can only be a poorly thought out posture or a facade.

The core argument of prohibition is that it prevents drug abuse and is more effective in reducing drug use than any other system of regulation. It is an absolute argument resulting in an absolute system. It fails to detect nuance such as providing for legitimate use -who after all besides a prohibitionist could protest against medicinal use of any substance as recommended by a doctor. Likewise it fails to adapt to unintended circumstances. Failure of prohibition leads only to demands from prohibitionists for greater prohibitions and more vigorous enforcement. It is intellectually lazy in the extreme. By positioning themselves as authoritarian guardians and caregivers of society whilst overseeing such chaos and danger, prohibitionists whether they like it or not effectively pedal dishonesty and misery.

As mentioned above, as a system prohibition fails to make apology for handing the entire value of the trade over to the black market. You may not wish to see the government or corporations profit from the drugs trade, but surely no one would prefer real gangsters to profit from it? When we think about control of the drugs trade we must think in terms of what else it funds presently, along with all the schools, hospitals and roads it could fund if properly managed. It presently provides cash flow for many other criminal enterprises. Prohibitionists make no mention of the same groups concerned with the supply of drugs being concerned with people trafficking or the sex trade, arms dealing, or indeed at some point passing large sums of money to terror groups in producer countries.

Prohibition, Gangsters and Terror

Every person, business and government is reliant on an income.

We all need money to operate, whether that income is a government grant or a salary paid by an organisation or through our own self employed trade, as a society we are absolutely reliant on the financial tides.

If an organisation stops making money, so too will its employees. They will need to either look elsewhere or their bosses will need to find new sources for that money, it probably means there will be more competition for the money they are looking to earn.

A lot of people complain about national and international subsidies for industries that are failing to succeed at present or are struggling to make a launch. These sums are of course pitifully small in terms to the cost spent on the war on drugs. In the UK alone it is estimated that the WOD costs 16 billion a year.

2003/4 estimates place the value of the UK drugs trade at 4-6.6 billion pounds a year. More recent figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that this figure is climbing. It is therefore possible to look on the war on drugs and its social model of prohibition as an elaborate form of government subsidy for organised crime. It is certainly not functioning as a deterrent or counter measure.

Prohibition makes drugs valuable. Because normal forces of finance and commerce are restricted from trading in them -it is possible and profitable for organised crime to fill this market instead. If prohibition was removed, then a huge source of criminal groups income streams would be neutralised, the choice for a business that has its cash flow cut off is to either disband, try and regain its market or to move on to other sources of income. If crime groups disband then they are no longer an immediate problem, they may attempt to regain their control of the market but against the arrayed forces of modern capitalism they are unlikely to be successful. Finally they may attempt to move on to other sources of illegal income. These sources will not be new problems and will already be controlled by existing groups, even if functioning as an affiliate group they will likely be forced to downsize their operations, certainly this will lead to a reduction in crime as indeed Portugal and some of the american states are already experiencing.

So far so familiar, but this is not the end of the story. For many complicated reasons our governments and militaries find themselves committed to conflicts around the world often in or near narcotic producing regions.

This image is a diagram of the issues of the afghan war. As noted upon it, there is a direct connection between insurgencies hostile to our military forces, the local narcotics industry and local support for an insurgency due to money being brought into circulation. It is possible to trace money from a street corner deal heading straight across the world to a group supporting terrorism against the UK. Prohibitionists would tells us that it is therefore irresponsible of western drug users to continue to use illegal drugs on the basis that it funds and strengthens criminal and terrorist groups around the world. Prohibitionists however fail to observe that they are funding and incentivising this financial stream by providing their enemies with a valuable commodity to sell.

When next addressed online or offline by a prohibitionist, it will probably be faster for all involved if we just cut to the chase and ask them why they are so keen on funding terrorism and people trafficking. Perhaps then the real conversation about protection and regulation can actually begin.


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