What have you been smoking?

There is plenty of evidence about drugs, argues LUKE ILOTT. So why are we ignoring it?

Alcohol america cannabis charlie bell cocaine crack crime rates Drugs Ecstasy government luke ilott prisons war on drugs

Last week, Charlie Bell sounded a clarion call for a more enlightened approach to the drugs debate: ‘limp-wristed liberals’ and ‘moralists’ should leave their opinions at the door, because hard evidence is ‘where any debate on the use, abuse, or whatever, of these drugs should begin, continue and end’.

Forgetting for a moment that data is completely useless unless you have political or moral values which determine what you seek do with it, you still have to be suspicious of any call to use more ‘evidence’ in a policy debate that’s been raging for half a century.

The evidence on drugs is all there. Just like Cantabs about to head for Life on a Sunday evening, what is remarkable is not how poorly informed policy-makers have been, but how willing they are to discard all that knowledge in the name of political expediency and/or a great night out in a glorified windowless corridor.

Groups like the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, an organ of the Home Office itself, are regularly consulted on the science and sociology of drug use, but tend to be ignored. Five members of the ACMD quit in 2009 after its head, Professor David Nutt, was sacked by the Labour government for pointing out that alcohol and tobacco were medically more dangerous than Ecstasy and LSD.

Nutty Nutt's Nutty Narcotics

Nutty Nutt’s Narcotics

And yet our draconian war on drugs continues to intensify, sweeping aside all evidence of harmful or positive effects. Cannabis was bumped up to class B in 2009, and rightly so – as FRANK’s website tells me, it might lead to ‘poor exam results’ and ‘can make you feel very hungry’. Meanwhile, alcohol is perfectly legal, and David Cameron himself admits to  chillaxing over his parliamentary papers with a glass or two of the liquid that kills 2.5 million each year.

The fact is, Britain’s drug policy has almost nothing to do with ‘evidence’. If it did, alcohol would be banned tomorrow, and magic mushrooms would be in school dinners. The police would stop having to waste their time preventing junkies from eating all the cereal and watching re-runs of Balamory, and the whole distribution network would happily be severed from the seedy underworld of violent crime.

Instead of their harmfulness to ourselves or to others, the fundamental reason drugs are banned is that a war on narcotics is particularly useful to those who rule us: once a populace has been made to irrationally hate or fear something, governments have a striking amount of leeway for actions that might otherwise seem rather dodgy.

In South America, the war on drugs has been little more than a veil for neocolonial interference by the USA. Wiping out cocaine production in Colombia has provided a useful cover for military intervention against Marxist revolutionaries who threaten the pro-American government in that crucial oil-exporting nation. Three-quarters of the aid given in the anti-coca mission ‘Plan Colombia’ goes directly to Colombia’s military, and it’s led to a 50% decrease in armed rebel attacks on oil pipelines… while cocaine production continues to increase. The story in Mexico is distressingly similar, albeit with bloodier consequences.

Mexican drug cartel

Mexican drug cartel

Domestically, the criminalisation of drugs has served as an equally handy excuse for equally questionable outcomes. Over half of America’s prisoners are locked up for drug offences that over half of Americans think shouldn’t be illegal. While they’re there, their compulsory labour – entirely unpaid in Texas and Georgia – produces 36% of household appliances and 21% of office furniture sold in the United States each year.

And those prisoners aren’t your average Americans, either: drugs legislation disproportionately hits the poor, the black and the female – the sentences for crack, for example, a drug typically used by the black, urban poor, are mandatorily 18 times harsher than for the equally harmful powder cocaine of the rich (it was 100 times until 2010).

Without the war on drugs, the profitable prison-industrial complex, with all its implications for the suppression of America’s black underclass, would fall apart. Britain’s penal system is not quite – not yet – as abhorrent as that across the pond, but damned if we aren’t trying our best with privatisation and prison labour initiatives of our own.

In short, calling for a sprinkling more evidence in the drugs debate is not just lazy, it’s dangerous. To suggest that scientific ignorance is the only reason why people, legislators included, disagree about the best approach to drug use reflects the astonishingly naive presumption that those who rule – whether in Whitehall, in business or in the press – want what’s best for all of us, but sometimes get a bit confused and miss the target.

The moment you hold your rulers up to more sceptical scrutiny, a whole new side to the drugs debate unfolds. When calling for ‘evidence’, don’t look at the drugs. Look at the realities of colonialism, racism, corruption and class suppression in the twenty-first century.