Is it time to legalise drugs? Why do we go along with a “war on drugs” policy that isn’t working? Why do we slavishly allow criminals to control this business? If making drugs illegal was supposed to stop drug use, it has failed miserably. What is the point of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Ireland has criminal gangs killing each other because the drugs business is highly profitable. It’s about money. Why not make it legal, tax it and eliminate the gangs?
The first thing we know about human nature is that prohibition doesn’t work. Irish people, and indeed people all over the world, are taking more drugs than ever. The policy isn’t working, so stop it. How do you think the Mafia came to power in the 1920s in the US? They did so because they sold illegal booze, and the more illegal it was during Prohibition, the more expensive it was and the more lucrative it was. This is so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining.
When you make something illegal, but don’t change people’s habits because people use drugs anyway, you drive the trade underground and you push the price up, dramatically.
But four other specific implications flow from the high price of drugs. Addicts must shell out hundreds of times the real cost of drugs, so they have to rob to feed their habits. Petty crime goes through the roof. The higher the price, the more crime occurs just to buy the same amount of gear.
At the same time, those who deal find themselves carrying extremely valuable goods. Therefore, among the low-level dealers, crime, assault and murder increase because they are carrying extremely valuable cargo.
The streets of the city become literally a battleground for turf among competing dealers. Last Wednesday, we saw what happens when these battles get out of control. When the returns are so substantial, criminals will do anything to dominate the business.
When drugs are legalised (and yes, I believe it is a matter of when, not if), their price will collapse, and so will drug-related crime. Users will no longer need to steal to support their habits. Drug-related crime will fall to the same level as off-licence-related crime. When was the last time you heard about a person being killed at an off-licence for a bottle of vodka or being stabbed for a packet of 20 Major?
Legalising drugs would also lead to a dramatic and permanent fall in out our prison population. The majority of prisoners in Ireland are there because of drug-related crimes. A few years ago, I went to Mountjoy Prison to talk economics to prisoners who were doing the subject in the Leaving Cert. These men were trying to get their acts together, which must be almost impossible when you are inside. The vast majority of them were doing time for drug-related offences. These are only offences because, unlike fags and booze, drugs are illegal.
If the prisons are clogged up with drug-related offenders, so too must be the courts. Legalising drugs would thus also free up huge resources wasted in the legal system to enforce the war on drugs, which isn’t working at all. And think about the amount of Garda resources that would also be freed up.
Maybe the most obvious prize would be that legalising drugs would destroy the drug gangs. There would be no reason for them to be in business. This result alone has to be worth considering. The only reason why these guys kill is because they are making a fortune.
Why not accept that prohibition is not stopping people wanting to get out of their heads? We can agonise about why this is, and we can rightly warn families and friends of the dangers of addiction, but making drug use illegal has not reduced drug use. In fact, all the evidence is that drug use is increasing rapidly.
Up to now the insistence of the authorities has been that, unlike booze and fags, illegal drug use is a preserve of a tiny minority. This is simply not true. The latest EU’s report on drug-taking, estimates that around a quarter of Europe’s adult population have taken an illegal drug in their lifetime. Look at the charts for cocaine use.
Unsurprisingly, cocaine and cannabis are the most popular – the report states that, throughout the continent, around 2,000 tonnes of weed alone is smoked each year. That’s a lot of stoned people.
Ireland comes close to the top of the cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, weed-smoking league and when it comes to painkiller abuse, it is number one.
This means that there is an enormous drug economy here. Now, you would have to have been living under a stone (or extremely wasted) not to notice this.
So let’s try to do a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation. According to the Havocscope.com, which estimates black market activity all over the world, drugs are quite expensive in Ireland relative to other countries.
According to this site, cocaine in Ireland sells for €100 per gram. Ecstasy trades at €5 per tablet, or ten ecstasy tablets for €40. A bag of heroin that is filled with 0.3 grams of heroin sells for €20, while two grams of heroin costs addicts on the streets of Dublin €100. Poor-quality cannabis resin is reportedly sold in seven-gram batches which are available for purchase for €25.
This means the illegal drug market in Ireland is enormous. In Britain, the Office for National Statistics estimated the figure was €5.5 billion per year for illegal drugs representing 0.4 per cent of GDP. Spain has just come out with its own figures, showing that last year Spaniards spent €5.7 billion on drugs (0.5 per cent of GDP). Is there any reason to believe that Ireland’s figures are different?
Standing back, we need to accept that the war on drugs is not working at all. It is creating, not stopping, criminality. How many more innocent people will have to be gunned down before we begin this conversation? The economics of this debate are very straightforward – so why not start the discussion?