It's a good policy but it's not enough


Around here we welcome good policy whoever suggests it. So, given that this is a good policy we welcome it but would also insist that it doesn't go far enough:

 The Liberal Democrats are looking at the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use and allowing cannabis to be sold on the open market.

Launching his party's draft election manifesto, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said the party would consider such options after they were advocated in a policy paper due to be discussed at the Lib Dem conference next month.

The paper said the Lib Dems "will adopt the model used in Portugal, where those who possess drugs for personal use will be diverted into other services". The southern European country decriminalised personal possession of all drugs in 2000.

The document also said the party "welcomes the establishment of a regulated cannabis market in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington state".

That we should end the entirely ludicrous policy of jailing people for ingesting their substance of choice into their own bodies is obvious. Government should no more be regulating this than it should be regulating the ingestion of cake, apples and pan haggerty (not that that stops the usual fruits and nuts from arguing that it should of course).

However, simple decriminalisation is not a sufficient policy: for markets do of course require regulation. No, regulation is not "what government does", it's entirely possible for markets to self-regulate. However, for them to do so it's necessary for there to be (in this case at least) brands.

For one of the great problems with drugs being illegal is that no one ever quite knows what they're taking. That heroin might be cut with icing sugar in which case little harm is done. It might be cut with rat poison in which harm is done: and they might have run out of both and not cut it at all in which case you'll be dead soon after injecting. The same is true of all of the other drugs that people like to take (that they like to take them being, obviously, the reason why they should be allowed to take them, it's their life, their body, not yours). Inconsistent quality.

And we saw this before, with the industrialisation of food back in the 19th century. Yes, from the 1870s on (with some very small baby steps a couple of decades earlier) we did have a series of laws about what could be put into what form of food. Alum into bread, that sort of thing. However, by the time the laws came into being the regulation was already happening. By people branding their products so that people could decide for themselves who they trusted to provide a decent and consistent quality. This was in fact the original purpose of manufacturer branding: not to feed excessive consumption but to identify those feeds that wouldn't kill you. As you would know by still being alive a week after you'd had your last portion of that nourishing beef broth from Rat and Catcher's Patent Manufactory.

That is, to regulate product quality, something we desperately desire in this field of currently illegal drugs, we need one of two things. Either legislation providing a testing system (something that's simply not going to happen) or freedom of supply as well as consumption. For only with that freedom of supply will there be that branding and thus regulation of quality that we need.

Decriminalisation is better than the current situation (and your humble author does live in Portugal and has done throughout the decriminalisation process) but it's not enough, we need to move to full legality. Controlled distribution, fine, taxed, fine, limited, fine, but regulation of quality must be done in some manner. And the best way is for producers to compete on quality just as was done 160 years ago with food.