'Let Them Snort Coke?', First Post, 18.8.09

Given the horrendous waste and failure of the prohibitionist regime governing drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin, not to mention the terrible violence and corruption that the illegal trade in each has created, you'd imagine that drug legalisation would be a hotter topic than it currently is. Yet legalising drugs is what American politicians call 'a third rail' issue - one that instantly kills the career of anyone who even suggests it... MORE


In the course of researching The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World, I struggled to find a cost-benefit analysis of a hypothetical legal market in drugs. More surprisingly, I also struggled to find an analysis of the pros and cons of banning them. A legal market in addictive drugs is widely judged to be a self-evidently stupid idea, unless of course, you enjoy the prospect of mass drug addiction. It must have been with such permissive airheads in mind that US Congressman Larry Smith once said: "The most dangerous people in America are those who believe in legalising drugs. They are traitors."


Mark Kleiman, author of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results, argues that "freely available cocaine is likely to give rise to self-destructive habits for an unacceptably large proportion of users". But how addictive is cocaine? A study of Dutch cocaine users conducted in 1993 found that only six per cent of users had problems controlling their consumption of the drug. Most of the remaining 94 per cent reported that their cocaine use tailed off of its own accord, usually after a three year 'cocaine career', as they lost interest, had children or got better jobs.


So how might a legal market in cocaine affect the six per cent of cocaine users who do become dependent on the drug? Many of the 147 people in England and Wales who died a 'cocaine-related' death in 2004 were drunk when they died. But most were injecting cocaine in conjunction with heroin and died because they were unable to judge the purity of the drug they were injecting. Metaphorically speaking, they died because they drank a pint of whisky thinking it was beer. If cocaine production and distribution were legalised and regulated, users would have access to pure cocaine, as well as effective drug education and help for those who needed it, none of which your average street dealer has any interest in supplying.


But the great unknowable is how the vast majority of people who do not take illegal cocaine would respond to a legal supply of hard drugs. Would they be more likely to take them if they were legal? A survey conducted in Arlington, Virginia asked just that. Only one per cent of those polled said that they would. 'Drug warriors' tend to assume that the law is the only thing deterring a global orgy of cocaine use. But the impact of the law on the prevalence of drug taking has been hugely exaggerated. Fickle fashion seems to be a much more important factor.


Since the Portuguese government decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use in 2001, recreational cocaine use has indeed gone up. But much of that increase can be attributed to Portugal's role as entry point to the booming European cocaine market from Colombia. What is most striking about the Portuguese experiment is that drug-related health problems have been reduced, there are fewer problematic users and more of those still dependent on hard drugs are now in work, which is probably the best antidote to any drug habit.


So what's not to like about a controlled legal market in hard drugs? For those inclined to see hard drug use as morally wrong, the answer is: 'everything'. But for the growing numbers of Europeans who see the problem not as drug use per se, but drug addiction, a legal market in drugs like cocaine would allow much tighter control over who takes them, where they take them and how much they know about them than the current gang-ridden anarchy.


Still not convinced? Consider this: we currently have a legal right to drink ourselves into a stupor. Common sense, an understanding of the potential dangers of alcohol and the need to get up and go to work tomorrow ensure that most of us choose not to exercise that right. Legalise cocaine and of course plenty of people will go on a cocaine-fuelled bender. But the novelty will soon wear off. Is there any reason to believe that legal cocaine need be any more (or less) of a problem than legal whiskey? It certainly couldn't be worse than the political paralysis that passes for drug policy today.


Read at The First Post here (also includes comments)


The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took over the World by Tom Feiling is published by Penguin Books, price £9.99