29 Mar 2000 – Daily Telegraph (UK)
Author: Tom Utley
|OPED: IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE TO JAIL DRUG DEALERSMY FIRST instinct yesterday when I read Lady Runciman’s suggestion that penalties for the possession of soft drugs should be relaxed was that it sounded very sensible.
Quite a few of my friends take cannabis, and I would hate to see any of them go to prison for it. Nor do I think that they deserve to. If they are doing any harm to anybody, after all, they are harming only themselves – although they may also be upsetting their near and dear. (As it happens, I do think that those of my friends who have smoked large amounts of cannabis over a number of years have done themselves considerable harm. They become more dim-witted and boring as every year passes.
But they are grown-ups, and that is a matter for them.)
And, anyway, it now seems to have become perfectly respectable for eminent public figures, from President Clinton to Mo Mowlam, to confess to having smoked the odd joint. There may be lots of reasons why we would like to see these characters driven out of office, but hardly anybody says that their criminal use of drugs in their youth is one of them. If most people are prepared to forgive the President of the United States and the British Cabinet enforcer for having taken cannabis, then why should the law go on demanding that less important people should go to prison for the same offence?
I also felt instinctively that Lady Runciman, who chaired the independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, was right to say that the penalties for dealing in drugs should remain very stiff.
Like most of us, I am revolted by the very thought of the criminal gangs who prey upon the weaknesses of others and depend for their living on pedalling products that undoubtedly cause a great deal of misery.
Indeed, everything that Lady Runciman wrote seemed at first to have the ring of common sense.
I particularly agreed when she said: “The most dangerous message of all is the message that all drugs are equally dangerous.
When young people know that the advice they are being given is either exaggerated or untrue in relation to less harmful drugs, there is a real risk they will discount everything else they are told about the most hazardous drugs, including heroin and cocaine.” How wise she was, I thought, to recommend that possessing less harmful drugs – such as cannabis, ecstasy and LSD – should cease to be punishable by imprisonment. (No letters, please, from parents whose children have died taking LSD or ecstasy. I know that these drugs can be lethal, and I grieve for the bereaved. But there are mercifully few of them.) How wise of Lady Runciman, too, I thought, to say that those who dealt in drugs of any sort should continue to arouse the full fury of the law.
Those, as I say, were my first reactions to Lady Runciman’s report – and I suspect that a huge number of others will have felt the same. It was only when I sat down to write this article that doubts began to creep in. And the more I have thought about it, the more I have become convinced that Lady Runciman’s recommendations offer us the worst of every possible world.
In my own youth, I supported the decriminalisation of all drugs. I knew from my own very limited experience that cannabis was not half as dangerous as adults made it out to be, and I suspected that the same could be be said for most other illegal drugs.
It was not so much the drugs themselves that were addictive, I thought, as the personalities of those who took them. I knew some people who had taken quite a bit of heroin, but found it easy to give up (although others, of course, were completely ruined by it).
I was also strongly persuaded by the argument that decriminalisation would cut the crime rate, in the way that the end of Prohibition in the United States flattened the crime wave in Chicago. As long as it remained illegal to own or sell narcotics, they would be very expensive, and extremely lucrative to the criminals who sold them. People would go on burgling and mugging to pay for them, and the criminal gangs who supplied the drugs would go on attacking each other to preserve their local monopolies.
I suppose it was fatherhood that changed my mind about drugs. I knew in my heart that if there was one thing that I wanted for my children, it was that they should never become drug addicts.
I decided that everything I had believed before was mere youthful posturing.
If fear of the law helped to persuade my sons against dabbling in narcotics, then as far as I was concerned, drug-taking should remain illegal. That was how I felt until yesterday, when Lady Runciman came along with her report.
Now she has made me feel that my youthful posturing was absolutely right.
Here she is, telling my children on the one hand that it is not so very wicked to take cannabis, ecstasy or LSD (not wicked enough, anyway, to merit prison). So the law, if her recommendations are accepted, will hardly discourage them from dabbling.
On the other hand, she is telling the drug-dealers that they are very wicked indeed.
So her recommendations will do nothing to counter the “prohibition effect”. Dealing in drugs will remain a violent business for criminal gangs, drug prices will remain high and people will continue to steal to pay for them.
How, anyway, can you say that it is all right to buy something, but not all right to sell it? It just doesn’t make sense.
If it is not so very wrong to smoke cannabis, then why is it so very wrong to sell it? It would be perfectly rational to say that buying and selling it are equally wrong.
But that is not what Lady Runciman is saying.
I am now coming round to the view that narcotics are not so very different from alcohol, and that they should be treated in the same way by the law. People do terrible things under the influence of alcohol – and there must be a great many more alcoholics than drug addicts in Britain. But very few suggest that alcohol should be banned.
Most adults can drink without getting into fights or smashing up cars. Some cannot, and those are the ones who should be severely punished by the law – just as anybody who harms others while under the influence of drugs deserves to be penalised.
It is right that the sale of alcohol is regulated, and that children are protected from it. But the consumption of alcohol has been a part of civilised life since man first invented wine. Decriminalisation would be the first step towards civilising drug-taking. Perhaps the Victorians had it about right when they saw drug-taking as a vice, but accepted it as a human weakness as long as it did nobody but the drug-taker any harm. I am increasingly convinced that Lady Runciman has got it all wrong.
MAP posted-by: Greg