How do you solve a problem like drugs?
The easiest way to answer that is to take a look at what we mean when we say "problem" and address each point directly.
– First problem: the harms suffered by people who use drugs, whether it's a super-strength ecstasy pill taking a first-time user by surprise, or years of chronic heroin use severely affecting your quality of life. By sticking to prohibition policies, you keep drugs unregulated, i.e. unable to be quality-controlled or tested before reaching the consumer. You also maintain the stigma around drug use that prevents some users from seeking advice or treatment in the first place.
– Second problem: the crime associated with drug use. This ranges from petty crimes carried out by users trying to pay for their next bag, to children being forced into selling drugs, to extreme violence and intimidation perpetrated by the guys at the top of the chain. Prohibition hands the entire drug market and all its associated riches directly to those guys, incentivising the violence it currently takes to maintain your position as a big player in an illegal market. Alcohol prohibition in the US put booze in the hands of criminal gangs; when it was later legalised, the murder and robbery rates immediately dropped. Criminalisation also means problematic drug users can pick up a string of convictions for petty crimes, which makes it harder for them to find work, rather than being directed towards treatment programmes. Same goes for petty dealers, who can pick up a record for selling a ten-bag.
– Third problem: the environmental impact of drug production. Destroying swathes of the Amazon rainforest to plant coca crops is obviously not a good thing. The solution? Take control away from the people doing that by planting and processing coca in big old regulated cocaine factories, undercut the criminals and use some of the profits to replant and repopulate the rainforest.
– Fourth problem: money. Globally, billions of dollars are spent every year fighting a futile, un-winnable war on drugs. The answer to this one is so simple it almost doesn't need to be said, but I'll say it anyway: stop spending all that money fighting a futile, un-winnable war. Would it not be better to direct some of those billions towards treatment that might help problematic drug users curb their use, and the rest of it on stuff like healthcare, education and infrastructure? (This isn't even taking into account the billions in tax you'd make from a regulated drugs market.)
These are clearly all very top-line points – "legalising all drugs" doesn't mean providing the same level of access to all drugs – and prohibitionists will have counter-arguments to each. However, it's important to remember than prohibitionists have been running the show for the last century and the problem is only getting worse. In the UK, the number of drug deaths are the highest on record, while in the US overdose deaths continue to rise and one in five prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences, many of them nonviolent.
It's also important to note that evidence seems to largely be tipping towards the regulation argument. This week, the prestigious British Medical Journal joined an international commission of medical experts by arguing in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing all drugs, writing, "The global trade in illicit drugs is worth £236 billion, but this money fuels organised crime and human misery. Why should it not instead fund public services?"
Of course, when it comes to drugs, expert opinion seems to have very little effect on government policy. So until politicians realise they don't know better than the people whose job it is to know about this stuff, we all better get used to rising deaths, wasted money and further harm to the environment.
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