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07/08/2007 00:00:00

UK: Legalise drugs to beat terrorists

The UK government is con­-sidering reclassifying cannabis from a class C
drug to a class B drug, carrying higher penalties for using and dealing.
As an economist with a strong commitment to personal liberty and
responsibility, my preference would be to see all illegal drugs
legalised. The only exception would be substances whose consumption
leads to behaviour likely to cause material harm to others.

Following legalisation, the production and sale of these drugs should be
regulated to ensure quality and purity. They should also be taxed, as
are tobacco products and alcoholic beverages. Greater resources should
be devoted to educating the public, especially children and teenagers,
about the health hazards associated with the drugs; more money should be
spent on the rehabilitation of addicts.

Ideally legalisation should occur simultaneously in a number of
neighbouring countries, preferably at the level of the European Union.
When the Netherlands became an enclave of tolerance of drug use, drug
users from all over Europe congregated there.

The principle-based argument for legalisation is that behaviour that
harms others ought to be criminalised, not behaviour that hurts only the
person engaged in it. It is not the government’s job to protect adults
of sound mind from the predictable consequences of their actions.

If the public is ill-informed about the consequences of drug taking,
there is an educational role for the state. Children should be protected
from drugs, as they are from tobacco and alcohol. So should the mentally
ill and mentally incapacitated. Parents should be paternalistic, but
when it comes to mentally competent grown-ups the state should not be.
It is not the responsibility of the state to ensure our “happiness” –
whatever that is. That is the road to a Brave New World.

The argument that countries with publicly funded or subsidised
healthcare have the right to proscribe the use of drugs likely to cause
harm to the user is a ludicrous misuse of the concept of an externality.
Should we ban rugby because it is more danger- ous than tiddlywinks? If
it is con- sidered unfair that those who do not use drugs end up
subsidising the care of those who do, this is an argument for the
National Health Service to deve- lop a policy of discriminating among
patients on the basis of how they have contributed to their illnesses.

A pragmatic argument against criminalising drugs is that criminalisation
creates vast rents and encourages criminal entrepreneurs to use
violence, intimidation, bribery, extortion and corruption to extract
these rents. Another pragmatic argument is that it is pointless to waste
resources fighting a war that cannot be won. The losing war on drugs
wastes resources that could be used to fight terrorism and other crimes.

Another important argument for legalising, in particular, all
cultivation of poppy and of coca (and their illegal derivatives) is that
this would take away a vital source of income and political support for
terrorist move- ments, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in
Afghanistan, and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (Farc) and
various paramilitary groups.

The United Nations estimates that opium production in Afghanistan grew
to more than 6,000 metric tonnes last year with a value exceeding $3bn.
It is the origin of more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegally
consumed opiates.

A significant portion of the profits flows to the Taliban, who act as
middlemen in the opium business. They combine extortion and threats of
violence towards the poppy farmers with the sale of protection to these
same farmers against those who would destroy their livelihood, mainly
the Nato allies and the Afghan central government.

Following legalisation, the allies in Afghanistan could further
undermine the financial strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda by buying
up the entire poppy harvest. If a sufficient premium over the prevailing
market price were offered, the Taliban/al-Qaeda middle- man could be cut
out altogether, and thus would lose his tax base. Winning the hearts and
minds of poppy growers and coca growers is a lot easier when you are not
seen as intent on destroying their livelihood.

This proposal for legalising poppy growing regardless of what the poppy
is used for is much more radical than the proposal from the Senlis
Council to license the growing of poppy in Afghanistan only for the
production of essential medicines. The Senlis Council proposal would not
end the problem of illicit poppy cultivation co-existing with licensed
cultivation. With the illicit price likely to exceed the licit price,
the Taliban would retain a significant tax base.

Is legalisation of all opiates an integral part of the proposal that the
allies procure the entire poppy harvest in Afghanistan? Consider
procurement without legalisation. The allies would find themselves each
year with the largest stash of poppy the world has ever seen. What to do
with it?

The entire global medical demand for morphine, codeine and other legal
poppy derivatives could be satisfied – possibly even free of charge. The
global demand for medicinal opiates at a zero price would greatly exceed
the current medicinal use of opiates, since many developing countries
are either in effect priced out of the legal market altogether or are,
for budgetary reasons, restricted to purchasing inadequate quantities
that leave widespread, unnecessary suffering among poor patients.
Supplying the world’s demand for medicinal opiates free of charge would
create economic problems for the current licit growers of poppy for
opium, in Turkey, India and elsewhere; well-targeted develop- ment aid
could address this issue.

If poppies could not be profitably turned into biofuel and if opium and
heroin remained illegal, the rest of the allies’ poppy stash would have
to be destroyed. This would drive up the street price of opium and
heroin and create even more massive rents for the remaining suppliers.
Poppy growers would try to withhold poppy from the allies’ procurement
round in order to sell it later in the illicit market. The Taliban would
retain a tax base. Legalisation is crucial for the success of this
squeeze play on the Taliban.

If opium and heroin were legalised, the allies’ stash could be sold to
regulated producers/distributors of opium, heroin and other formerly
illegal poppy derivatives. Our chemical and pharmaceutical industries,
and indeed our cigarette manufacturers, would be well-positioned to
enter this trade. The profits made by the allies on the sale of the
stash could be turned over to the Afghan government. It surely makes
more sense for the government to tax the poppy harvest than for the
Taliban to do so.

So legalise, regulate, tax, educate and rehabilitate. Stop a losing war,
get the government off our backs, beat the Taliban and deal a blow to
al-Qaeda in the process. Not a bad deal!

The writer is professor of European political economy at the London
School of Economics’ European Institute.

Author: Financial Times via UKCIA

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