Comment: While the government cracks down on drugs, it keeps its hands off big tobacco
By Peter Reynolds
Next time your government tells you 'drugs are illegal because they're harmful' you'll know they are lying.
Let's be clear. The Home Office rarely tells you the truth about anything, certainly not the health harms of drugs and most especially not the devastating effects of tobacco and alcohol.
The Department of Health, David Cameron, his ministers and all members of both houses know full well how much damage these highly toxic substances cause. We have 100,000 deaths per year from tobacco and 30,000 from alcohol, at a cost of billions to the taxpayer.
The blatant corruption and hypocrisy behind last week's reversal of tighter regulation on tobacco and alcohol is conclusive proof of corruption in government. Time and again, ministers and their flunkies tell us how they must be very careful about what 'messages they send'. Perhaps Cameron, undoubtedly still dizzy from dancing in circles, can explain what message these U-turns have sent?
Under successive administrations our government has countered attempts to bring alcohol and tobacco under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MoDA) with what can only be described as overwhelming force. Litigants seeking judicial review of this most irrational of government policies have been met with the most aggressive response from the Treasury solicitor. It is clear who is paying the piper – and who is paying his chief advisors, be they Crosby Consultants or that good ol' chap Ken who loves a beer and a pint and his fat fees from British American Tobacco.
I'm not opposed to alcohol or tobacco. The only thing worse than our present irresponsible policy on booze would be to ban it. Surely everyone understands the disastrous effects of prohibition, the consequences of which we still live with today?
But when I was a teenager, alcohol could only be bought in pubs or in one or two specialist wine merchants, which would be closed by 9.00 pm. Now you can buy it in almost every shop on every high street – and it's not difficult to find it 24 hours a day if you ask around.
Even worse, we have permitted these most malevolent of drug pushers to design new products to make them palatable to children and people who did not previously enjoy the taste of alcohol. Our government has created a monster which threatens to engulf this country in a torrent of liver disease way beyond anything seen in the rest of Europe or the US.
Tobacco has been a much better story, where education and social change has massively reduced harm, yet still allowed adults to exercise free choice. I would argue that price rises have gone too far which has led to a burgeoning illicit trade with all sorts of consequential harms and costs. I'm not convinced by the plain packs argument. Evidence-based regulation is where we should be.
And that is exactly what the MoDA is for. It is extremely progressive and intelligent legislation which, without exception, has been disastrously administered by every government since 1971.
It was intended to take the politics out of drugs policy by relying on an expert panel, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to classify their potential for 'social harm' . Note that carefully. It was not intended to control drugs on the basis of the health harms they could cause to an individual but on the harm they could cause to our society – which could, of course, be an aggregate of health harms caused to a large number of individuals.
On this basis, alcohol and tobacco are the prime candidates for control under the MoDA. They cause massively more harm to society than all other drugs combined, multiplied a hundred times over. The social harms of cannabis are virtually non-existent. The individual health harms are trivial by any comparison and the harms of organised crime, human trafficking and 'moonshine weed' are caused by prohibition, not by cannabis itself.
Similarly, the social harms of cocaine are negligible, at least to British society. Unless you follow David Nutt's suggestion that coke-fuelled bankers were behind the ludicrous risks which brought our economy down or, as we learned this weekend, that our lawmakers are sniffing the white lady in the parliamentary loos, like a bunch of chavs in an overpriced nightclub.
Class A drug use is said to cost our economy more than £15 billion per annum between just 300,000 problematic drug users. It has to be asked – if you removed the costs of the effects of prohibition from that and instituted an intelligent policy of regulation which would minimise street crime and law enforcement costs, how much would that be reduced?
But none of this comes close to the harms of alcohol and tobacco. Everything else pales into insignificance. The only reason that the costs of drug law enforcement are so high is at the behest of the alcohol and tobacco industries – those who hold a government-guaranteed, police-enforced monopoly on recreational drug use.
We should place alcohol and tobacco under the auspices of the MoDA immediately. They, and all other drugs, should be regulated in accordance with evidence. Corrupt, prejudiced and ignorant government minsters should have no part in it.
In my view this would mean:
- Alcohol: Minimum unit pricing, massive reduction in outlets, controls on alcopops and youth marketing, investment in education.
- Tobacco: Reduced taxation to counter the illicit market, investment in education.
- Opiates: On a doctor's prescription subject to participation in treatment.
- Cocaine: On a private doctor's prescription subject to regular assessment and treatment if necessary.
- MDMA/Ecstasy: Through licensed outlets to adults only, subject to rigorous testing and labelling of contents.
- Cannabis: Through licensed outlets to adults only with labelling of contents and by doctor's prescription for medicinal use. No restrictions on personal cultivation except that it may not be sold for commercial gain.
These policies, which could be enacted through the existing MoDA, would massively reduce all social harms, minimise individual health harms and transform public health in Britain. It would also provide colossal savings and provide billions in new tax revenue on cannabis.
Peter Reynolds is the elected leader of CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform which is the largest membership-based drug policy reform group in Britain.
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