'A Cocaine Epidemic?', Financial Times, 31.7.09
People will tell you that the waste, destruction and misery caused by the prohibition of drugs pale into insignificance compared with the chaos that would follow a lifting of the ban, writes Tom Feiling. Making a substance as addictive as cocaine freely available would, according to Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, lead to a drug epidemic.
The UK's 300,000 problem users of cocaine and crack might argue that we already have a drug epidemic on our hands, but what Costa has in mind would be worse. Much worse. Within weeks, we could expect to see middle England turn into Harlem circa 1985, as Mondeo man sells his car, house and ultimately his wife's body to feed his hunger for cocaine.
In researching my book, The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took over the World, I was struck by the similarities between the anti-drug movement and crack addicts. Both live in fear of ill-defined phantoms. They also tend to have short attention spans, be committed to repeating past mistakes and have a seeming inability to admit responsibility for the problems they create.
Here are some facts that both parties would do well to consider. First, most people who take cocaine don't become addicted to it. A survey conducted in 2007 found that of the 35 million Americans who admitted that they had tried cocaine, only six million had taken it in the previous year. Even crack, probably the most moreish substance known to humanity, can be resisted: 604,000 Americans had smoked crack in the previous month; but another 800,000 Americans had smoked it at some point in the previous year, but not in the previous month. Occasional crack smokers? Yes, really.
When Costa warns of a drug epidemic, he is not thinking of today's drug-takers, but the millions of people who have never tried cocaine. His assumption is that they don't take it because it is illegal. But would they be more likely to if it were legal? A poll of people in Arlington, Virginia, asked just that. Only 1 per cent of respondents said that they would. Maybe they were just being coy, but it seems safer to assume that most people don't like most drugs.
"Ten Years of Cocaine" is a Dutch study published in 1993. It confirmed that most users take the drug for an average of three years. Their use tended to escalate in frequency and dosage, then tail off as they found more interesting things to do with their time. Only 6 per cent of users found it hard to control their intake. Finding ways to keep drugs out of the hands of these users makes sense, and banning those drugs might seem to be the obvious way of going about it. But for those who do become dependent on cocaine, its legal status has little bearing on the availability of the drug or how much they take.
The logic of prohibition is appealing, but flawed. It assumes that the law can eradicate drug consumption. It cannot. Cocaine is here and will stay here until fashion, not the law, says otherwise.
We should abandon the fantasy of a drug-free world and start taking responsibility for regulation. If you really want to control who grows coca, who produces cocaine, who sells it and for how much, who can take it, and how much they pay for it, create a framework that is logical, accountable and adjustable.
Still not convinced? Consider the declining popularity of tobacco smoking. High taxation, credible education programmes and effective treatment programmes work – a legal ban on smoking would not. Why should cocaine be treated any differently?
Read at The FT here (includes companion piece by Matthew Engels
Tom Feiling's book, 'The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took over the World', is published by Penguin on August 6, priced £9.99