It would be naïve to expect that Britain’s newly introduced general ban on all psychoactive substances will have any positive effects. The history tells us that prohibition doesn’t work, period.
Tough drug laws are a popular way to garner public support for the politicians, but they have typically been totally ineffective in their stated purpose – to cut off practically unlimited supply of drugs to the underground markets. In fact, an argument could be made that illegality is actually hampering the legitimate efforts to exercise any kind of control over the flow of psychoactive substances, hence increasing the risks incurred by people who consume them. That would make the total impact of strict drug bans a net negative, and that’s even before we take the financial side into account. Still, United Kingdom appears set to introduce the most restrictive drug ban seen to date in Europe, essentially outlawing anything that can be used to get high regardless of the chemical formula.
Speaking in strictly economic terms, drugs are an example of goods with so-called ‘inflexible demand’, just like oil or electricity. In translation, the demand remains the same regardless of the price or other conditions of the purchase, such as legal restrictions. To bring the example even closer to the street-level reality, anybody who decides to buy drugs will always find a way to do it – from a legal source or a shady back alley dealer, it makes no real difference. You don’t even have to invoke addiction as the explanation for this phenomenon since it holds true for first-time users just as well. It appears that some people simply have a tendency towards mind-altering substances that’s resistant to attempts at systemic control. Of course, if those people are prepared to spend whatever it takes to get their drugs of choice, there will always be someone willing to take the risk (and the cash) to open up a supply channel.
Another reason to avoid harsh legislative restrictions is that enforcement is nearly impossible. With most common crimes, there is a perpetrator and a victim, who is usually forthcoming towards the police and wants the justice to be served. With drug offences, this is not the case since both buyers and sellers want to avoid detection by the authorities, and no direct participant in the exchange will voluntarily report the crime. This makes police work essentially limited to random checks and exploitation of informants, and that’s just not realistically enough to stop a well-organized scheme from continuing. When one drug ring is taken down by the police, another one pops up almost immediately due to an aforementioned strength of demand, often within the same area. Law enforcement agencies have limited manpower and resources, and the additional responsibilities they will have to bear after the adoption of the general ban is likely to erode their effectiveness even further. Short of installing Nazi-style checkpoints throughout the country and commissioning Orwellian surveillance systems, it is difficult to imagine how the police agencies ever could develop the capacities needed to combat the international drug trade head on.
Alcohol prohibition in the United States is certainly the best-documented case study about the inefficiency of broad spectrum bans. Famously voted into the constitution right after the World War I largely for moral reasons, the prohibition was a spectacular failure that powered organised crime to unimaginable heights while fuelling widespread governmental corruption. The number of drinkers didn’t change significantly, but what did change was the quality of the liquor they consumed – much of the illegal booze was created in bathtubs by people who were less than qualified for the job and accidents with poisoning were not rare. The entire episode was such a disaster that a new amendment had to be made in order to repeal the prohibition act and return to square one after the considerable social turmoil and economic damage was already suffered.
At the other hand, a majority of countries that attempted drug liberalisation in some form were satisfied enough with the results to continue supporting such programs. The Netherlands and Portugal pioneered this approach decades ago and they still haven’t felt that re-introduction of tough criminal laws was necessary; although to be fair both countries pursue large-scale traffickers just as harshly as any other jurisdiction. United States, Czech Republic and Switzerland are also among the nations that experimented with limited decriminalisation, deciding to treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a moral crusade. Instead of following suit and searching for a less-repressive answer to the ongoing crises, Britain has taken the opposite course and decided to legislate psychotropic drugs out of existence, despite the mounting evidence that such a goal is unsustainable.
The focus of the UK’s upcoming ban is on novel psychoactive chemicals that have become extremely popular in recent years, but previous arguments illustrate why this target could easily be missed. Frustrated by the constant tweaking of chemical formulas to ensure formal compliance with the law, the authorities decided to introduce a catch-all provision that will give the enforcement officers much more leeway. While that should be enough to put owners of head shops out of business, it is unlikely to affect the overall consumption of drugs in the UK by much. More probably, people who would otherwise choose one of the legal chemical agents will now simply be pushed back to the black market, where they have even less of a chance to control the chemical composition of the substance in question.
Heavy users of hard drugs, who should be the main focus of harm reduction efforts, are the group least likely to change its behaviour in the light of the new ban. Expansion of the scope of drug laws will do nothing to assist those individuals with overcoming the drug habit, but increased focus on enforcement could put them in greater danger of being arrested. Filling up the prisons with non-violent drug offenders is hardly an effective method for combating addiction, especially when you consider that illegal drugs are widely available within the prison system. The approach basically looks to push the problem further away from the public eye while projecting a picture of a concerned and proactive government, without any real concern for practical consequences down the road. That could be an expensive gamble, to say the least.
It’s not hard to see why UK’s conservative government would prefer a simple and clean solution for the problem of designer drugs. Newspaper headlines linking deaths of young people to legally purchased chemicals are a PR nightmare of the highest order and lawmakers don’t want to be seen as supportive of this state of affairs under any circumstances. That’s the reason why both leading UK parties currently share the ardour for waging the ‘war on drugs’, even if their lead decision makers must be aware how futile this effort will probably end up being. With this in mind, the announced indiscriminate ban looks like a cosmetic measure designed to please the public first and foremost, without a true long-term vision to back it up. Saying that the objective is ‘drug-free Britain’ is akin to supporting peace on Earth – it is a noble goal that will not be achieved through empty proclamations.
Accepting that drug users will always find a way to get what they want demands some self-awareness that politicians are rarely capable of. Instead of searching for sweeping, headline-generating victories, the government would be better advised to pursue a succession of small improvements that would eventually add up to something meaningful. The drug abuse issue is too deeply rooted in human psychology to simply eliminate overnight, especially when all drugs are lumped together and treated as a single category. A far more nuanced and better-informed approach is called for, but it seems that the UK will have to wait for a while before cooler heads can prevail in this discussion.
This article was originally written in English, If you see any errors please email us at words@The-TripReport.com