Louis McEvoy, OULC member, argues that Labour should adopt a much tougher drug policy.
Liberals have long decried the war on drugs as, at the very least, a counterproductive approach. We’re told that drugs will always be in circulation, that keeping them criminal sustains organised crime, and that prohibition doesn’t work. Some go down a bleaker route, suggesting that these harmful substances should not only be decriminalised, but even legalised, for the sake of individual freedom of choice. The first argument is demonstrably untrue; the second, ethically bankrupt. The Labour Party is a party of socialists, not individualists, and a party which ought to be ruthless in eradicating whatever causes harm to society. On the basis of these first principles, we must go much further in the war on drugs.
I will agree with the pro-decriminalisation camp in so far as recognising that our current approach to drugs is not working. But the reason the current approach is ineffectual is simple: there is no real war being waged on drugs. Illegal drug use is on the rise because successive governments have been catastrophically tolerant towards drug consumption. You, reading this, will almost certainly know someone who has done drugs; you may have used drugs yourself. After all, there is no social stigma against it. What is this supposedly punitive, harsh war on drugs like in practice? A slap on the wrist, if that; possession of cocaine, LSD or heroin can in theory culminate in a seven-year prison sentence, but this is exceptional. Fines are the norm. If you’re caught with cannabis, you’ll usually get off with nothing more than a warning. This, we’re told, is the brutal war on drugs that we must stop.
If we had a proper war on drugs, we could witness real change. The pro-decriminalisation lot contend that this would make matters even worse; their totem is prohibition in 1920s America. Unfortunately, popular understanding is incredibly misguided: American prohibition did not criminalise private ownership and consumption of alcohol, and even then, it successfully halved alcohol consumption across the country. (Prohibition was ultimately overturned for the same reason many liberals now want to soften our laws: for the sake of tax revenue.) Elsewhere, even today, we can see real prohibition in action: Japan and South Korea are key examples. The argument that a war on drugs will fail to reduce drug consumption falls flat in the face of these countries: Japan’s black market is particularly tiny, far tinier than Britain’s, thanks to their tough practices. Japan boasts a very low crime rate alongside a very high conviction rate. This is no coincidence. When such an example is raised, the usual riposte will be that Japan is culturally different. Never mind, then, that Japan’s anti-drug laws were brought in after the War to cope with an epidemic of drug consumption; never mind that government can play a significant role in shaping national culture.
Tackling this problem with ruthlessness is the best and only option. Decriminalisation is a gateway towards legislation; its most prominent advocates are often candid about this. This might well take trade out of criminal hands – although the cost of heavily taxed drugs may perpetuate the illegal trade anyway, as is visible in some US states – but it would place it into the control of exploitative firms instead. If we do not take a genuinely tough line on drugs, routinely applying harsher sentences, harmful drug consumption and its grim effects on health will grow. Many of the advocates for a softer approach have good intentions, sincerely concerned about the scale of the problem we face, but decriminalisation would make things worse, sleepwalking to an even greater drug culture than we have at present. Labour should seek to be tough on drugs, and tough on the causes of drugs, rather than appeasing those who simply want to cash in on common misery.