Today’s call by celebrities for the government to reform its drugs policies (PDF) is a little different from the usual celebrity activism. Behind the famous names like Sting, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Richard Branson are people whose opinions should matter in the drugs debate. Former Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth, former police Chief Constables, high-ranking solicitors and QCs and academics of physiology and criminology have all thrown their weight behind the call too. These are people who know what they’re talking about, and their voices can’t be easily ignored.
At the same time, a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy has recommended that governments change their approach to drugs, including legalization and regulation in place of outright prohibition. This panel includes Kofi Annan and former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico – countries that have been torn apart by drugs-funded criminals. Again, these are voices that should carry some weight.
We might be close to a turning point. What remains is for prominent, serving politicians to grasp the nettle and speak out: former ministers and presidents can be influential, but until politicians in office are willing to say these things we won’t see real reform. Like it or not, many people rely on politicians and experts to determine their opinions. I have no doubt that many politicians privately support legalization. What we need is more high-ranking politicians with the courage to speak out.
What might this reform look like? I was intrigued to read about Silk Road this morning, a sort of anonymous eBay for online drug sales. It uses eBay-style seller ratings to avoid scams like bad drugs being sent, or no drugs being sent at all after a payment. The site seems like a relatively cost-effective and safe way for people to buy drugs. Good.
If something similar to this could be legalized for the sale of certain drugs, then many of the fears that people have about drug legalization could be avoided. Let's keep street selling illegal, but let people buy them from licensed sellers online and only use them on private property. Ugly scenes of drug dealers on the streets, like in Lisbon where drugs are decriminalized but not legalized, would be avoided, but people who want to take drugs would still be able to do so in the privacy of their own homes.
This would also have the excellent side effect of choking demand for drugs from street sellers, which would reduce crime significantly in poor urban areas. This would in turn be great for things like social cohesion, employment and school attainment, all of which are currently inhibited by young men regularly being given jail sentences and criminal records for carrying drugs.
If this were proposed, the argument really would become a question of privacy. Am I free to take drugs in the privacy of my own home, or not? If we shift the goalposts so that that really is the question we're asking with respect to drug legalization, it's an argument we can win.