Culture Watch 18 February 2014
There are many arguments given by leftists, civil libertarians and others for the harm minimisation policies and the liberalisation of drug laws. They are heard over and over again, and these mantras tend to be taken as gospel truth simply by virtue of their mass repetition.
But are these arguments as solid and irrefutable as their proponents claim? I don’t think so. Here I examine in some detail eight of the more common arguments proffered. I find them all wanting.
One. This approach will save lives.
This statement is misleading at best. In the case of dangerous drugs like heroin, a death may be temporarily stalled, as a result of such harm minimisation measures as needle exchanges, but death remains a very high factor. The best way to insure that a person does not die of a drug overdose is to make him drug free. A drug-free person does not face the risk of a drug-related death. Thus our aim should be to get people off mind-altering drugs and into detox and rehab programs, in order to make them once again productive members of society.
Two. It is the compassionate approach.
One has to ask the question, What is more compassionate: to keep a person at risk of drug overdose or to help a person escape that risk altogether? To simply keep a person on drugs, albeit “safely” is not compassionate. Our aim should be to make drug addicts drug-free. Any approach that leaves a person chained to their life-threatening addiction is not a compassionate approach.
Three. It works in other countries.
There is actually very little evidence that harm minimisation programs in fact work overseas. For example, the Netherlands is often held up as a model of successful harm minimisation programs. But as advocates of this approach admit, the research is just not there. As the Victorian Drug Policy Expert Committee even admitted concerning the Dutch drug consumption facilities (DCFs – the Dutch term for drug injecting rooms), “there has been no thorough research on the impact of DCFs”.
Moreover, I have lived in the Netherlands for a five-year period. And frankly, I don’t want to see what takes place there happening here. Until they engaged in a recent crackdown, the city of Amsterdam was awash with drugs and crime. Indeed, drug-related crime was three times the rate of the US. You couldn’t walk down a street of central Amsterdam without being accosted by drug pushers and addicts. I lost count of how many times our bicycles were stolen by the druggies to help support their habits. I don’t want that cesspool of crime, drugs and violence to be replicated here.
Four. It will empty our prisons.
Harm minimisation advocates will say that we should think of drug use as a health problem, not a criminal or legal problem. They argue that criminalisation and incarceration is the wrong approach. I have often heard the harm minimisation proponents use America’s prison population as an example. They claim that there are 2 million Americans languishing in prisons, and if we would stop making drug use a criminal issue (that is, if we would decriminalise drugs) we would see an end to such appalling figures.
What they do not tell you however is that while around two-thirds of these prisoners are in fact in for drug-related offences, very few are in there merely for simple drug possession. Indeed, one study found that only 2 per cent of the American prison population were convicted of pure drug possession. Most were in for aggravated drug crimes, that is, crimes committed while on drugs (murder, armed robbery, theft, assault, child abuse, etc.) or crimes committed in order to obtain drugs.
In fact, the US Department of Justice has found that criminals commit six times as many homicides, four times as many assaults and almost one-and-a-half times as many robberies under the influence of drugs as they commit in order to get money to buy drugs.
Moreover, the majority of these crimes took place under the influence of alcohol, and not illegal substances. Thus it is a myth to suggest that drug decriminalisation would empty our prisons, free up our courts, and so on.
Five. It will put an end to the black market and reduce the crime rate.
This claim is often heard. The argument goes like this: By making drugs legal, or less prohibitive, drug prices will decline, and as a result, crime and the black market associated with illicit drugs will decline or disappear. It is also claimed that the legalisation of drugs will remove the profit motive from the drug trade. And it is argued that the money saved in stopping parts of the drug war, or in taxing the newly legalised drugs, can go to rehabilitation. There are a number of problems with these kinds of arguments.
First, the costs to society for drug use are far greater than any moneys saved on reduced law enforcement efforts. Consider the costs of drug legalisation to society: lost productivity, increased medical services for addicts and their families, more highway accidents, poorer educational performance, increased policing, more babies who may pick up their mother’s addiction, etc. A recent study found that the annual cost of drugs to the Australian community is 14.3 billion dollars. Another study found that almost a third of drivers killed on Victoria’s roads have tested positive to illicit drugs. Increase the number of drug users, as legalisation will do, and you increase this figure as well.
Second, any “sin taxes” raised by these legalised drugs will still not offset the costs to society mentioned above. Indeed, the taxation of legalised drugs will still drive people to crime. In order for governments to raise enough revenue from drug taxes to pay for all the costs of increased drug use, the taxes will have to be high. But the higher the tax, the more the demand for black market drugs, or the more crime resorted to pay for these higher priced drugs.
Third, the profit motive abounds in already legal operations. The alcohol and tobacco industries are currently driven by hopes of large profits. If drugs were legalised, whole new industries would develop to cash in on the trade. Greed for gain does not disappear when an activity is legalised.
Fourth, black markets exist today for all kinds of legal products. Just because something is legal does not mean the black market will disappear. People will still want to beat taxes, escape government notice, or sell to minors, thus the demand for black markets will continue, even on legalised products.