Stoned in a Stone Age Policy

An assessment on how the archaic stance on criminalisation of drugs has shot you, me and itself in the foot for decades now.

Anirudh Belle

Note: This story was originally published on You Speak India’s web-publication. It has been republished on this blog with permission from the publisher and the author.

“I’m gonna smoke de ganja until I go blind,” sang Bob Marley, “You know I smoke de ganja all a de time.”

Millions across the world who share the same devotion to cannabis are choking in a fix too tight to tolerate. It just can’t be overlooked anymore.

It funds the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s paralysing the government in Mexico. It chases 11,000 Britons into jail every year. It is savaging the ghettoes of America and cultivating Aids in parts of urban Europe. It is fracturing democracy across Latin America. It amounts to a turnover of about £200 billion a year, upon which not a penny of tax is paid. Thousands around the world die, and millions are impoverished, by it. It is easily among the most significant man-made cancers on the face of this earth.

No, I’m not talking about drugs. I’m talking about the “war on drugs” and the mess it has fostered. The same problem it sought to solve, it has only nurtured and diversified.

Before I present my case on why criminalisation of drugs has got to go, I must confess that I am no advocate for the use of drugs. But, that, like my preference of ice cream, is a personal choice. Nobody has the right to thrust personal morals over a society, especially over the use of a substance that is threatening the happiness of nobody but its user (if it does). I call this a moral question and not a public health issue because it is nowhere close to being the latter. One might as well ban alcohol and nicotine, which, clearly, have been proven to be far more fatal than cannabis.

Synthetic drugs, however, are dangerous and a ban on their trade and consumption is understandable. But to be fair, our problem with synthetic drugs and its racket wouldn’t have been so pertinent if this mindless ban on cannabis and its derivatives weren’t introduced in the first place.

During alcohol prohibition in the United States – why, even in our present day Gujarat – anybody with two eyes to see was certain that alcohol was still readily available. Black markets thrived, a criminal monopoly evolved and quality standards were oftentimes breached – in essence, prohibition did much more harm than it sought to subvert. Perhaps it was this that led the American government to see wisdom in repealing the alcohol prohibition in 1933.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon launched a global war against drugs. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government succumbed to pressure and enacted a law called the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in parliament. Bhang, hashish (hash/charas) and marijuana, which were legally available in the open market till then, were rendered criminal substances.

Global suppression of cannabis consumption and trade inevitably gave effect to the same, if not much worse, criminal monopoly that alcohol prohibition had nurtured. The on-going result of this has been briefly alluded to at the start of this piece.

Moreover, criminalisation of drugs led people from mild drugs to strong drugs. Marijuana, being a relatively heavy and bulky substance, is easy to detect and interdict. The warriors against drugs were far more successful in banning marijuana than, say, cocaine. The imposed scarcity this created led marijuana prices to go up and it was harder to get. Subsequently, drug consumers were incentivised to opt for heroin, cocaine, crack or one of the other synthetic drugs instead. Prof. Milton Friedman, the late monetary economist, puts it frankly in saying that synthetic drugs may not have even existed if it wasn’t for drug prohibition in the first place.

After almost a century of successive flops, it hardly raises questions over why people are gradually looking for an alternative to this expensive and gory “war on drugs”. Prohibiting narcotics has failed to curb an increase in their use, particularly in first-world countries and increasingly in emerging economies (Brazil, for instance, is the largest consumer of crack cocaine in the world). At the same time, prohibition has empowered criminal mafias that propagate murder and corruption from London to Punjab and which even threaten to cripple countries in Latin America and Africa.

It is, therefore, clear that decriminalisation of cannabis, and other mild and harmless drugs is the first and vital step our government must take. To ease chokes from the supply-side, legalisation of these drugs must be enforced, lest they continue to remain dominated by a criminal monopoly.

In a country where issues like rape and terrorism are rampant, our security machinery will be far more worthwhile in investing its resources on such issues and not waste time chasing consumers of harmless drugs into jail.

In fact, money saved on policing weed can be spent on going after real criminals or on treatment for drug addicts.

The economics of this case demonstrates the importance of markets, free choice and consumer sovereignty and the dangers that arrive if they are unduly tampered with.

We are privileged to have one of the finest Constitutions on earth. Within and in upholding the rule of law, our government must take decisive steps away from prohibition. Half-hearted measures, however, may be as, if not more, dangerous than overdose.

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