Socialist Worker

End the war on drugs

There is a radical alternative to drugs prohibition, says Steve Rolles of think tank Transform, but the mainstream parties are ignoring it

Issue No. 1948

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

All three major parties have outlined policies on drugs in their general election manifestos—and all three are putting forward some sort of crackdown.

Labour promises to introduce “compulsory drug testing at arrest for all property and drugs offenders”. The Tories say they will give “all young users of hard drugs a straight choice—effective treatment or appearing in court”.

And the Liberal Democrats are offering “more police efforts on tackling drug traffickers and those drug users who resort to crime to feed their habits”.

Despite differences on issues such as the personal use of cannabis, all these mainstream approaches share a common underlying assumption—that drug prohibition works.

This common approach sets criminal penalties for the production, supply and use of certain drugs, and seeks to eliminate certain drugs from society using the force of criminal law.

Prohibition is not based on evidence of effectiveness—in fact the evidence shows it doesn’t work. Instead it uses criminal law to enforce a misplaced moral view that all drug use is unacceptable.

But prohibition is by no means the only approach to drugs. There is a parallel system of pragmatic regulation that governs the use of alcohol and tobacco. This legal system is based on accepting the reality of drug use and looks for ways to minimise the harm drugs can cause to users and the wider community.

We at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation believe prohibition has failed as an approach to dealing with drugs in society. It has been enormously destructive, and it should be ended.

Rather than eliminating drugs from society, drug prohibition has served only to criminalise millions of users and to create lucrative and dangerous illegal markets controlled by organised criminals.

Transform seeks to replace prohibition with the phased introduction of legally regulated markets for currently illegal drugs, using existing models (prescription, pharmacy sales, licensed retail) appropriate to the risks associated with each drug.

Dismantling prohibition and regulating the market will have a number of direct and immediate impacts. To begin with, it will restore human rights and dignity to the marginalised and disadvantaged.

Only a few decades ago, problematic drug users were treated in the UK for what they were—people desperately in need of help. Prohibition, in contrast, turns the majority of those without substantial private means into criminal outcasts.

Getting rid of prohibition would also lead to a substantial decrease in the largest cause of acquisitive crime, gun crime and street prostitution.

As with alcohol prohibition in the US, drug prohibition has gifted the market to organised criminals. The deregulated market leads to extortionate street prices that in turn result in acquisitive crime, street prostitution and violent “turf wars” over control of the lucrative trade.

An end to prohibition would also mean huge reductions in the non-violent prison population. Over half of the UK prison population is made up of dependent heroin and crack users convicted of property crimes to support their habits. Prison is a hugely expensive and singularly ineffective environment in which to address drug misuse issues.

There would also be a “peace dividend” from ending the drug war. In a study commissioned by the home office, York University estimated the social and economic costs of heroin and cocaine use in 2000 to be between £10 billion and £17 billion—the bulk of which are costs to the victims of drug-related crime.

Billions currently wasted each year on counterproductive enforcement could be freed up to fund drug treatment and education, non drug related policing activities and other social programmes.

In the longer term, although regulation does not directly address the underlying causes of problematic drug use, it is a vital precondition for change. Transform believes this could lay the foundations for some truly dramatic changes to the world in which we live.

It would transform the face of inner cities. Prohibition causes many of the problems in socially deprived communities, including street dealing, gang warfare and the criminalisation of already socially excluded individuals.

Getting rid of prohibition would mean increased opportunities to control the spread of HIV and hepatitis. Prohibition makes worse the dangers and public health problems associated with illegal drug use—in particular HIV and hepatitis transmission amongst intravenous users.

Last but not least, a new approach to drugs would help the restabilisation of producer countries. Parts of Latin America, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Burma and numerous other countries have become almost ungovernable because of the corrupting influence of an illegal market that now almost rivals the oil and arms industries in terms of turnover.

Ending drug prohibition is the only way of creating the conditions under which drug usage can be effectively managed. Prohibition cannot work. But regulation can.

Steve Rolles is the information officer for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. For more information go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 23 Apr 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1948
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.