Bring drugs within the law

	In 1883, Benjamin Ward Richardson, a distinguished British doctor,  
denounced the evils of drinking tea.  He said it caused an "extremely  
nervous semi-hysterical condition".  In 1936, an article in the American  
Journal of Nursing claimed that a marijuana taker "will suddenly turn with  
murderous violence upon whomever is nearest to him".  Tea and marijuana  
have three things in common: they alter the moods of those who take them,  
they are regarded as tolerable safe, and they are addictive.
	Attitudes to addiction are complicated and often contradictory.   
Tea and marijuana are in themselves fairly harmless, yet tea is generally  
legal and marijuana is not.  Tobacco and cocaine are harmful but, again,  
tobacco is almost universally allowed, whereas most readers of The  
Economist live in countries which may imprison you for possessing cocaine.   
Throw in the joker of addictions which come not in syringes or cigarettes,  
but in casinos and computer cartridges, and you have a fine arena for  
combat between libertarians and puritans.
	This battle, always lively, has just become hotter.  On April 28th  
Bill Clinton appointed Lee Brown, a former policeman, as America's new  
"drug tsar", and thus leader of the worlds toughest prohibition programme  
(see page 31 [I'll type that one in after this one --Wonko]).  Ten days  
before, Italians had voted to move in the other direction by scrapping the  
harshest measures of their drug laws.
	Such boldness is rare.  The attitude of most electorates and  
governments is to deplore the problems that the illegal drug trade brings,  
view the whole matter with distaste, and sit on the status quo--a policy  
of sweeping prohibition.  Yet the problems cannot be ignored.  The crime  
to which some addicts resort to finance their habits, and in which the  
suppliers of illegal drugs habitually engage, exacts its price in victims'  
lives, not just money.  The illegal trade in drugs supports organised  
crime the world over.  It pulls drug-takers into a world of filthy  
needles, poisoned doses and pushers bent upon selling them more addictive  
and dangerous fixes.
	Yet most people still balk at exploring ways in which a legal  
regime might undermine such effects.  Their refusal owes something to a  
distaste for addiction in itself.  This is an argument shot through with  
inconsistency.  The strongest disapproval often comes from those who  
scream about liberties if their own particular indulgences--for assault  
rifles, say--are attacked.  Addiction to cigarettes is reckoned to be the  
chief avoidable cause of death in the world.  Alcohol deprives boozers of  
their livers and their memories, and ends the lives of all too many  
innocents who get smashed on the roads by the inebriated.  Yet here the  
idea of dissuasion within the law is broadly accepted.
	A much sounder basis for doubt is the worry that legalisation  
would increase drug-taking, and that rising consumption and addiction  
would overwhelm the gains to be had from getting drugs within the law.   
Yet legalisation should not be taken to mean a lawless free-for-all, with  
no restraint on the supply or use of drugs.  Done properly, it would allow  
governments to take control of the distribution and quality of these  
substances away from the criminals.  Quality control is decisive, because  
much of the damage done by drugs bought on street corners is caused by  
adulterated products; in much the same way, carelessly distilled hooch can  
cause blindness.
	Supply would be regulated by a system of government licences  
analogous to those already in force for tobacco and alcohol (and which  
would serve, among other things, to keep drugs out of the hands of  
children), backed by strict policing and heavy penalties.  The toughness  
of the regime would rise with the addictiveness of the drug in question--a  
light touch for marijuana, an extremely dissuasive one for heroin.
	Such legalisation would not magically dispense with the need for  
policemen, but it would make the needed policing more manageable.   
Particularly in the business of softer drugs, where the taxes can be lower  
and the restrictions less onerous, and where the first trial steps towards  
legalisation should take place, it would undermine the "risk premium" that  
provides drug cartels with their profits.  Taxes raised on what is  
reckoned to be the world's largest untaxed industry would help governments  
spend money on treatment and education, which would do more good than the  
billions currently spent on attempting to throttle the criminal supply of  
drugs of all sorts.

The Quest for Soma [Heading in bold print --Wonko]

	There is another consideration, one for the future.  The  
illegality of drugs, coupled with distaste for pleasurable addiction, is  
skewing research.  Progress is being made by scientists in understanding  
both what causes the pleasure of drugs and what makes the pleasure so hard  
to give up (see page 105 [I'll type this one in too --Wonko]).  Currently  
such research is obliged to have only one aim--unhooking existing addicts.   
It might have another.  In many areas of pharmacology, researchers are  
exploring the idea of "designer drugs", chemicals tailored to fit  
harmlessly into human biochemistry.  Addiction research should be  
encouraged to do the same: to move beyond devising better therapies for  
those who wish to kick the drug habit, into the invention of safer, more  
effective and less habit-forming highs.  At the moment it cannot, for a  
safe drug equals a "substance abuse" equals a crime.
	The fact remains that any legal regime which lowers the economic  
incentive for drugs-crime will surely boost drug consumption.  The  
question is by how much.  One possible pointer is that, when asked, people  
say it will not rise a lot.  In opinion polls, Americans generally insist  
that they would not be persuaded by legalisation to try drugs they are not  
taking now.  There is some reason to believe them, despite the first  
instinct to be sceptical, since they already have access to plenty of  
mindbending substances, from alcohol and tobacco to diet pills.
	Then there is reassurance from experiments.  The American states  
that decriminalised marijuana during the 1970s saw no divergence in the  
consumption of the drug from that in neighbouring states which continued  
to prohibit it.  Extensive experience with decriminalisation in Holland  
shows that not only is there no accompanying surge in  
consumption--allowing for the inrush of addicts from more restrictive  
countries--but related crime falls when drugs are legalised.
	One further argument is used by defenders of the status quo.  They  
say that, even if the case for exploring legalisation were conceded by  
governments, public resistance would doom the idea.  This is hardly  
surprising, given the way governments the would over have for decades  
hammered home the dogma of prohibition.  A more rational discussion could  
do much to change public opinion.  Only a few years before alcohol  
prohibition was repealed in the United States in 1933, public sentiment  
was similarly dominated by the opinions of the country's prohibitionist  
	There are signs that public instincts are changing.  In recent  
months a growing number of federal judges and lawyers have voiced their  
exasperation with America's approach to drugs.  Their objections led  
politicians in Washington to hold a meeting earlier this month to rethink  
the country's failed drugs policies.  Janet Reno, the attorney-general,  
started the day be describing her doubts about America's current approach.   
It ended, significantly, with a discussion of the merits of legalisation.   
Neither Mr. Brown nor Ms. Reno, and certainly not their boss Mr. Clinton,  
has so far supported legalisation.  But they have done what no American  
administration has dared do in living memory--set the scene for a proper