Would legalisation work?

Article published on July 3, 2006
Article published on July 3, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The war on drugs is needlessly criminalising a large sector of the European population and providing an income to criminals. Meanwhile, drug consumption continues to grow unchecked. There must be another way

In an age where the drugs problem does not respect international frontiers, it is increasingly clear that the EU must find a more co-ordinated approach. Europe needs to find an answer to the crucial question in the drugs debate: should we continue to prohibit the production and distribution of drugs, or should we accept that the war on drugs is lost, and establish a legal framework for the drugs market?

Europe offers an opportunity to compare different drug policies in the hope of answering this question. There is an enormous distance between the tolerant approach of Dutch authorities and the “zero tolerance” policies of Sweden or France. Thanks to the annual figures of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA), it is possible to compare the impact of these policies on the use of drugs.

And the winner is

Well, here is the remarkable conclusion: there is no clear connection between drug policies and the prevalence of drug consumption. In countries with liberal policies the prevalence is not higher than in countries with restrictive policies. On the contrary: an EMCDDA survey carried out in 27 European countries in 2003 pointed out that the “perceived availability” of cannabis by 15 /16 year olds (i.e. whether they consider it ‘fairly easy’ to obtain cannabis near where they live or go to school) in the Netherlands, where adults are allowed to buy cannabis, is lower than in 9 other EU countries, where sale of cannabis is totally prohibited.

Policies based on the acceptance of drug use as a first condition to start reducing or avoiding drug related problems have had positive results for public health and safety. In many European cities, distribution of clean needles has reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS, controlled heroin distribution has helped drug users to re-establish their lives, and the existence of coffeeshops (in 100 Dutch cities) has reduced the criminality and public disruption associated with illegal sale points for cannabis.

The cost of prohibition

Most problems that are usually associated to drugs themselves are actually caused by the fact that they are illegal. The illegal environment in which drugs are produced, sold and consumed implies high prices, low quality and other phenomena that affect the lives of both producers and consumers in a negative way. Meanwhile, it generates a criminal industry with an annual turnover of, according to UN figures, approx. 300 to 400 billion euros a year – that is 10,000 euros a second -, which can be invested in other criminal or subversive activities, such as terrorism.

Meanwhile, the public expenditure of the war on drugs (the costs of the legal apparatus that maintains the prohibition of drugs) in the EU alone amounts to an estimated 6.5 billion euros a year. The impact of law enforcement on the capacities of illegal drugs traffickers is negligible: in order to make the trade unattractive enough, police operations should confiscate 75% of the total volume. In Europe this percentage has never been more than 15%.

More and more independent experts and other citizens involved in the drugs field in Europe are convinced that current policies are outdated, counter-productive and ignorant. According to them, legalisation of drugs would reduce problems and bring massive benefits. Some of them, united in the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) have been working on post-legalisation scenarios that could be applied in today’s Europe. Probably first involving cannabis and other drugs considered as ‘soft’, and then ‘hard’ drugs at a later stage.

A possible scenario

The cultivation of plants like cannabis for personal use could be made completely legal for adults. Concerning the cultivation for commercial purposes, licenses could be handed out to associations, which would only produce enough for the personal consumption of its members, so no large surpluses would have to be created. Eventually the association could host a café or bar where small doses could be purchased, such as is the case in the Dutch coffeeshops.

The production of chemical or synthetic drugs could be done by private enterprises, which would be controlled by representatives of social organisations, health experts, researchers, and local and national authorities. This would ensure a sound production process, fair trade and limit leakage to the illegal market.

The organisation of the access to chemical or synthetic drugs by adults could be organised in different ways. One possibility is distribution on receipt, through pharmacies or specialised medical centres. If someone wishes to consume more frequently than is legally tolerated, he/she can obtain these receipts from a doctor. The other possibility would be to create casino-like clubs, where adults could go to consume drugs. In any case, these models should be introduced gradually, so any negative evolution, that would undoubtedly occur, could be countered in a responsible way.

Legalisation of drugs would lead to more transparency in the wholesale and retail trade, quality and price control and less unhealthy consumer patterns. It would seriously reduce the involvement of criminal organisations, although there will probably always remain an illegal drugs market. But it will be much smaller than today.

Thinking ahead

Opponents to legalisation claim that consumption of drugs would increase if they were legal. The figures from the Netherlands, where cannabis has been almost legal since 30 years, show the opposite can be true as well. Others say the criminals who had previously been involved in the drug trade would simply move on to new markets. Whether or not this is true, it cannot be used as an argument against legalisation and the massive benefits it will bring.

What is the likelihood that any of these scenarios, or a combination of them, will become real in Europe in, let’s say, the next 5 years? The answer depends how democratically drug policies will be decided upon. Until now EU authorities have succeeded in avoiding an open and public debate on the issue. However, if one day this debate will start, there is little doubt that it will end with drug legalisation in Europe...