A slow revolution is taking place in the realm of drugs legalisation.
In November 2012 Colorado and Washington states decriminalised cannabis for recreational use in popular referenda. 2012 also saw the first ever clinical trials of ectasy backed by the British government and broadcast on national television. A increasing number of high profile bourgeois politicians have called for an end to the illnamed War on Drugs.
There are many good reasons for the bourgeoisie to want to legalise drugs. In 2003 the UN estimated that the international black market in drugs was worth £321.6 billion US dollars. Legalising this market would yield substantial tax revenues and save billions in drug enforcement activity.
The US alone spent $30 billion on drug enforcement activity in 2006. Add to this the economic cost of incarcerating 400,000 prisoners for drug offences and the figures are enormous. An American economist has estimated that legalising marijuana alone could save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. On top of this the US treasury could yield $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like all other goods and $6.2 billion annually if marijuana were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. (prohibitioncosts.org/executive-summary).
There is clearly a lot of money to be made from drug legalisation and it is no surprise that opportunist fat cats like Richard Branson are lobbying for change. However, drug prohibition is a tool of oppression and socialists should support moves to greater liberalisation.
The outlawing of possession, supply and consumption of certain plants, fungi and chemicals dates back to religious authorities in medieval times.
However, the global ban on cannabis, cocaine, opiates and psychoactive chemicals is a peculiar feature of 20th century capitalism. Most of the modern drug laws that span the globe were introduced in America and imposed on other states as conditions for doing trade with the world’s superpower. In the US as elsewhere, drug prohibition came about as a result of three social forces: organised religion, oppression of certain social groups and the public health lobby.
The most ancient lobby for drug prohibition, organised religion, formed a popular movement for drug prohibition in the temperance movement. The Protestant work ethic combined with a reactionary horror at the drunkenness of the modern proletariat and the popular movement for abstinence formed in Europe and America in the early 19th century. In the aftermath of the First World War they managed to impose their abstinence through force of state power in America, Canada and Finland. But popular support for alcohol soon overwhelmed them, the laws were overturned and the temperance movement turned its attention to other drugs.
The other drugs were an easier target because they were the drugs of choice of marginalised sections of society. Drug laws often target oppressed groups in society and are a mechanism of social control. In England in the 19th century, there was a period when gin was criminalized and whiskey wasn’t, because gin was the drink of the poor. Similarly the US maintains a difference in sentencing for possession of crack and powder versions of cocaine as crack cocaine is cheaper and used by poor people.
The first drugs laws in the US were imposed against racial minorities. In 1875 the state of Califoria banned the smoking of opium specifically to curb the number of young white women entering Chinese-run opium dens. Ingesting opium in other ways was not criminalised and white American doctors maintained hundreds of thousands of opium eaters for several decades after this law passed.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 had a similar purpose to oppress the Mexican and Latin American immigrants for whom marijuana was a drug of choice. Many veterans of the Civil Rights movement argue that Nixon’s announcement of the “War on Drugs” in 1973 was designed to crack down on the energy of the Civil Rights movement by imprisoning black youth.
Although Afro-American people represent 13% of the US population and consume similar amounts of drugs as other communities, they constitute 74% of the US prison population for drug offences.
The third and final reason for drug prohibition is on health grounds. It is not clear why people take drugs and clearly not all drug use is pleasurable and harmfree. Drugs undoubtably play a major part in creating and sustaining severe and chronic mental and physical health problems among a small minority of users. However, the evidence that there is something inherent in drugs that does this has been contested.
In the late 1970s a Canadian psychologist, Bruce Alexander, devised an experiment called Rat Park where he took opiate-addicted lab rats out of their cages and placed them in a colourful, stimulating environment where they were free to socialise with other rats. He gave the addict rats a choice of sweetened morphine water (rats have a naturally sweet tooth) or normal water.
After several weeks in Rat Park all the rat addicts were drinking the normal water and had beaten their addictions. While we cannot make a simplisitic extrapolation from rats to humans, Alexander’s experiment seems to suggest that there is a large social component to drug dependence.
If we lived in the human equivalent of Rat Park (i.e. socialism) it is likely that we would still use recreational drugs for a whole range of different reasons. However, it is unlikely that the problems associated with drug addiction would still feature to such an extent.
The continued “War on Drugs” is an anachronism. We should support all efforts for greater liberalisation.