When the gruesome Francisco Pizarro encountered the extraordinary empire of the Incas in 1532 one of the many things that fascinated him was the Inca’s postal service. The Incas had an elaborate system of runners who ran for up to eights hours from zone to zone bringing messages from the rulers to their subjects. The speed and endurance of these runners amazed the Spaniards. Of course, the runners were chewing cocoa leaves, rudimentary cocaine.
A Shaman’s grave excavated in western China dating from 3,000 BC was discovered to have contained significant amounts of cannabis; of course, the ancients used cannabis for recreational purposes.
Archaeological evidence indicates that magic mushrooms have been used by people who want to get off their heads since at least 7000 BC.
We know that opium was first cultivated for heroin by the Sumerians, the world’s first urban civilization, in about 3,600 BC. It was widely used by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Indians and Romans.
The evidence is overwhelming: there is something within human nature that encourages some of us to want to distort our brains and alter our reality. Up to now the insistence of the authorities has been that, unlike booze and fags, illegal drug use is a preserve of a tiny minority. This is simply not true. The latest EU report on drug taking estimates that around a quarter of Europe’s adult population has taken an illegal drug in their lifetime.
Drug use is as old as religion. It is, whether we like it or not, part of the story of humanity. All efforts to prohibit drug use have failed. So why do we think our present policies will succeed?
Let’s have a serious discussion. Is it time to legalise drugs? Why do we go along with a “war on drugs” policy that isn’t working? Why do we slavishly allow criminals to control this business? If making drugs illegal was supposed to stop drug use, it has failed miserably. What is the point of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
The reason criminal gangs are killing each other in Ireland is because the drugs business is highly profitable. It’s all about money. Why not make it legal, tax it and eliminate the gangs?
Here’s the reality. The war on drugs has failed. What we have now is not the “war on drugs”, but the “war of drugs”, where the profits central to the drug trade are controlled by a small but violent knot of Mafiosi whose illicit cash gives them their power. Take the cash away and they’ll have no power.
The war on drugs has failed by any logical economic metric. Prohibition doesn’t work; people take risks and get around prohibition even if it means breaking the law. Despite the so-called “war on drugs”, there are now more drugs available than at any time in human history.
Irish people, and indeed people all over the world, are taking more drugs than ever. The policy isn’t working, so stop it. The Mafia came to power in the 1920s in the US because they sold illegal booze, and the fact it was illegal during Prohibition made it more expensive and thus more lucrative. This is so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining.
When you make something illegal, but don’t change people’s habits because people use drugs anyway, you drive the trade underground and you push the price up, dramatically.
But four other specific implications flow from the high price of drugs. Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the real cost of drugs, so they have to steal to feed their habits. Petty crime goes through the roof. The higher the price, the more crime occurs just to buy the same amount of gear.
At the same time, those who deal find themselves carrying extremely valuable goods. Therefore, among the low-level dealers, crime, assault and murder increase because they are carrying extremely valuable cargo.
The streets of the city become a battleground for turf among competing dealers. In Ireland, we see what happens when these battles get out of control. When the returns are so substantial, criminals will do anything to dominate the business.
When drugs are legalised (and I believe it is a matter of when, not if), their price will collapse, and so will drug-related crime. Users will no longer need to steal to support their habit. Drug-related crime will fall to the same level as off-licence-related crime. When was the last time you heard about a person being shot at an off-licence for a bottle of vodka or being stabbed for a packet of 20 Major?
Legalising drugs would also lead to a dramatic and permanent fall in our prison population. The majority of prisoners in Ireland are there because of drug-related crimes.
A few years ago, I went to Mountjoy Prison to talk economics to prisoners who were doing the subject in the Leaving Cert. These men were trying to get their act together, which must be almost impossible when you are inside. The vast majority of them were doing time for drug-related offences. These are only offences because, unlike fags and booze, drugs are illegal.
If the prisons are clogged up with drug-related offenders, so too must be the courts. Legalising drugs would thus also free up huge resources wasted in the legal system to enforce the war on drugs, which isn’t working at all. And think about the amount of Garda resources that would be available for other work.
Maybe the most obvious prize would be that legalising drugs would destroy the drug gangs. There would be no reason for them to be in business. This result alone has to be worth considering. The only reason why these guys kill is because they are making a fortune.
Why not accept that prohibition is not stopping people wanting to get out of their heads? We can agonise about why this is, and we can rightly warn families and friends of the dangers of addiction, but making drug use illegal has not reduced drug use. In fact, all the evidence is that drug use is increasing rapidly.
Standing back, we need to accept that the war on drugs is not working at all. It is creating, not stopping, criminality. How many more innocent people will have to be gunned down before we begin this conversation? The economics of this debate are straightforward — so why not start the discussion?