“The war on drugs”: what a bombastic, vainglorious phrase that is.

‘Look at me’ says the politician or pundit who uses it approvingly, ‘look how tough I am’ .

But for the politician or pundit who uses it disapprovingly, there are equal and opposite pretences: ‘look at me – see how reasonable I am, how realistic!’

But the war on drugs isn’t a war at all. It is an ongoing and complex process of law enforcement. It has different components which are handled in different ways by different jurisdictions and with differing degrees of effort, intelligence and success. Generalisations are impossible – except one: unlike war, law enforcement is never ‘won’.

Unless rendered obsolete by broader economic, social or technological change, crimes are rarely, if ever, eliminated. Theft, fraud, counterfeiting, people trafficking, knife crime, smuggling, tax evasion: there’s no end to any of those – and yet the ‘war’ against them all continues because the aim is not victory, but containment.

The complaint that government action against an undesirable activity ‘will only drive it underground’ overlooks the fact that this is better than the alternative – i.e. having it out in the open. There are certain things that law-abiding people are entitled not to have normalised; not to have their children see; not have to struggle against alone without the law on their side. And that’s especially important for the poorest and most marginalised communities.

None of that means we should abandon those who slip into the clutches of drug dependency – and want help…a compassionate, rehabilitative approach to drug dependency and legalising drugs are two different things – and the former does not require the latter. Indeed, the criminal justice system can play an active and constructive role. The fear of getting caught, the shock of conviction, the mandating of treatment and the restriction of supply can all help in the process of getting people off drugs and keeping them off.

Here’s another two things that can go together: the availability of a legal, regulated and abundant supply of drugs and a thriving criminal trade in the same or similar substances. In theory, legalisation should mean no more illegal supply – after all, why go to some guy down an alleyway when you could go to a licensed outlet with unadulterated products sold in standard units?

In practice, it’s more complicated than that – as America’s opioid epidemic proves beyond doubt. Far from pushing out the pushers, the over-prescription of entirely legal opioid-based medications has created new opportunities for them. By expanding the size and the demographic diversity of the opioid dependent population, the legal trade has expanded the market for illegal opioids including heroin. If your prescription has run out, or you need something cheaper (or stronger or perhaps merely different) then the dealers will sort you out. Of course, the product may or may not be cut with super-strength synthetic opioids like fentanyl – which is key factor in the epidemic’s horrific and worsening death toll.

Remember, all of this has happened in the context of a regulated and abundant supply of unadulterated opioids, and yet everything that isn’t supposed to happen has happened. The criminal trade hasn’t just survived, it has extended its reach – and innovated in all sort of dangerous new ways.

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