The Fall of the Anti-Drug Consensus

For almost a century, the Western World has maintained a coherent policy of universal prohibition when it comes to recreational drugs. The dominant political parties in almost every nation across Europe and North America have supported the ban, and very few have even entertained the idea of considering an alternative policy – let alone trying to implement one. In 2012, there are several notable exceptions to this rule, as Portugal decriminalised all drugs just over a decade ago, similarly to the well-documented case of the Netherlands. These two anomalies only account for a very small proportion of the Western population, but it seems that they are no longer alone in their open-minded approaches to relaxing the laws of prohibition.

The Portuguese suffered some of the worst drug abuse and addiction problems in the world in the 1990’s, with only Britain and Luxembourg matching its soaring heroin-dependency rates. What followed in 1998 was not only the decriminalisation of all drugs – including cannabis, cocaine and heroin – but a complete re-evaluation of the way the nation views the problem. Drug addiction is no longer seen as an issue of crime and punishment but of disease and public health, and individual addicts are treated as victims of the problem rather than the cause. This novel perception of the problem has encouraged experimentation with new methods of dealing with it; funds are now available for preventing initial use, for treating individuals who struggle to deal with their habits and for managing the reintegration of the rehabilitated into society. Almost fifteen years on, this brave and fascinating reform of the law has paid great dividends, as drug-related deaths have decreased in line with a reduction in HIV infections, admissions to rehabilitation clinics and drug-motivated crimes. Unsurprisingly, there are few left in Portugal who still call for a return to the days of prohibition.

The reform’s success has proved to be a catalyst for changing attitudes all over the globe. Just last month, the lower house of the Swiss Parliament voted to legalise possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis. Many US states, including California as of 2010, now permit cannabis sales for medical purposes, and 109 MEPs backed a motion in 2002 to ‘partially decriminalise’ the sale of certain softer recreational drugs.

This growing trend of support for the decriminalisation is now even showing signs of spreading to British shores. At the 2011 Liberal Democrat party conference, members of the UK’s third party and junior coalition partners passed a historic motion to adopt the establishment of an evidence-based drug reform panel as official party policy, with just two votes of opposition. On the face of it, this may not seem like such an important development in that the policy is not likely to implemented in the near future, which is the realistic assessment. The real significance of this development is what it says about the attitudes of both the public and politicians towards prohibition: they are no longer afraid to admit that there are alternatives. For the first time, British politics has moved away from an unconditional anti-drug stance to a position where there is actually room for discussion and debate.

It would be easy to overstate the difference recent developments have made so far; only a handful of nations have actually decriminalised drugs altogether, and a majority of Western governments remain opposed to further liberalisation. Still, the ever-increasing scope for debate and the growth of support amongst third and smaller parties demonstrates the fragility of the old consensus, and a new willingness to find different solutions to the problem – possibly the first step on the road to finally ending our unwinnable War on Drugs.