It seems like an age ago (well, Thursday) since former New Labour minister Bob Ainsworth came out fighting for a radical rethink on drugs policy. He writes:
... our political culture doesn’t allow for an honest and open discussion about drugs policy. As soon as a politician mentions the words decriminalisation or legalisation; the press scream blue murder, colleagues move to distance themselves from you and your political opponents sharpen the knife. The words had barely passed my lips before my party briefed against me and called me ‘irresponsible’.This is a position so reasonable that even Tom Harris was moved to support it!
So I am calling for an open and frank discussion on drugs policy. We should consider all options. For too long, we have dismissed the legalisation and decriminalisation because it will open the door to carnage on our streets without any evidence to support that.
Surely as night follows day the press were all over him like young Tories on a cocaine snowman. The Daily Express said Ed Miliband "faced fresh embarrassment" over Ainsworth's call. In one of the feeblest attempts to stir the shit I've ever seen, Macer Hall wrote "the row intensified when Mr Ainsworth exploded with rage at attempts to rubbish his argument. Last night, the dispute was threatening to turn into a serious test of Mr Miliband’s authority as Labour leader as he struggled to silence Mr Ainsworth’s defiance to official party policy." What a load of hooey. For the ever-thoughtful Daily Star, "his proposals were instantly branded potty yesterday by both Labour and the Coalition Government." Potty? Geddit? He's mad, and pot's another name for Cannabis so ... never mind.
More serious engagement with Ainsworth's position comes from Hopi Sen who sets out the political reasons why, in Labour HQ's words, "these are not the views of Ed Miliband, the Labour party or the public". Indeed, if this 2009 survey of attitudes to drug use in Scotland are anything to go by, the mood among the population at large are hardening - no doubt helped by hysterical press reporting and much being made of the links between drugs and wider criminality. Because Labour plays the conventional political game, because its leadership and the minds of many activists are attuned to the sphere of non-punishment, the only way Labour would adopt a genuinely progressive and socialist policy on drugs is if there's a seismic shift in society itself. Short of that we're lumbered with an authoritarian, moralising consensus embraced by the media, the main parties, and other paragons of public virtue.
That doesn't mean socialists or anyone who would like to see the decriminalisation of all drugs should give up. The arguments for taking this step are obvious: the passing of drug cultivation and supply into the hands of a professional body, an agency, or an arm of the state allows for regulation of quality, price and availability. And this is before you start talking about tax revenues and more opportunities for programmes helping people off drugs. Sure, as with duty free fags and underground booze distilleries a black market will exist. But it will be much smaller and pose less of a crime/anti-social behavioral problem than is presently the case. Why would a junkie want to nick your stuff to feed a habit when safe and cheap alternatives are available from the local dispensary?
Then there is a question of framing. Whether you regularly inject heroin or smoke a joint in the dark while jiving to crap music, you are "a problem". But a problem to whom or what? Going back to his post, Hopi worries partial decriminalisation in Portugal hasn't provided any evidence for reduced drug use. So? The aim of a sensible drug policy would be to regulate and dampen the harms that currently accompany prohibition - if someone wants to fill their veins with junk, take a trip to Narnia, or spend all night giggling at folded beer mats, that's up to them. As a general rule people are pretty sensible and capable of making their own minds up - something mainstream politicos occasionally need reminding of.
The hostility toward drugs by political elites isn't, however, irrational (even if it often assumes that appearance). A foundation stone of our social superiors' culture is to assume they know what's best for everyone else. Without that conceit, how could they ever have the confidence to rule? However, this conceit is imbued with their interests. They want disciplined and fit bodies they can feed into the division of labour to reproduce their wealth and their class relations. While there are obviously health issues associated with substance dependency, employing a factory or office full of potheads doesn't make for the most efficient rate of exploitation; employees under the influence threaten profitability and organisational potency. It's for this reason drinking on the job is, in most cases, a sackable offence.
Sections of the state have a direct interest in maintaining drug prohibition too. If decriminalisation kicks away a key material prop that sustains contemporary criminality, there goes a large chunk of the legitimacy for maintaining a police force and bureaucracy of 200-odd thousand. Should an armistice be signed in the war on drugs, the anti-democratic force of what Engels called "armed bodies of men" would have their powers severely curbed and the state's ability to suppress democratic upwellings from below compromised. This is before you get to the shower of socially useless drug tsars, war-on-drugs consultants, and the like. And of course the kingpins of the underworld too, whose money can grease the wheels of capitalism as well as any from legit sources.
In short, behind contemporary drugs policy lies a whole complex of political economy which sustains it. Calls by Bob Ainsworth and Tom Harris for a proper debate are very welcome and well intentioned. But the case for decriminalisation is hobbled straight away if it doesn't simultaneously identify and challenge the interests arrayed against it.