Licensing Drugs - A Thinkable Solution
Originally published by Police Review 3 June 1994.
When Commander John Grieve of the Metropolitan Police suggested that 'licensing' the possession & supply of all illegal drugs should be studied, he called it 'time to think the unthinkable'.
The Prime Minister's Office & other politicians proved him right: by and large they agreed that they weren't going to think about it!
However, it isn't as unthinkable as all that. Mr Grieve, the Met's director of intelligence has 25 years' experience & says that methods so far have failed. He called for serious research on alternatives to drug prohibition. The suggestion was 'licensing' - 'some to possess, some to use, some to supply'.
But licensing is an ambiguous term. There are four obvious systems already used to control anti-social activities that prohibition cannot eliminate, which could be adapted to Mr Grieve's purpose.
Licensed premises for drug sales, as with alcohol. Alcohol is the world's most popular addictive drug, the cause of tremendous crime & misery as well as pleasure. Yet the business isn't controlled by criminals, & there is little black market trading. Boozing is kept to an acceptable level by licensing the dealers, who have to be of good character & have no criminal record, & the places where dealing is allowed. Drug-pubs could be licensed by local magistrates, & fined or shut down in the same way as conventional pubs if they breached the laws. Landlords would be unlikely to dare serve children, or accept stolen goods as payment, for fear of losing their livelihood.
Alcohol laws punish excesses rather than possession. You have to be incapable, disorderly or in charge of a car to get into trouble. Excesses are easy for police to spot without searching anyone; no need to prove to whom a package of drugs belongs. Driving under the influence of drugs is already illegal; the problem is setting a legal limit & developing a roadside test to prove a driver is over it.
It might be better if the Monopolies Commission kept the drinks trade out of this new market. Most drinkers, crack heads, junkies & cannabis smokers only mix with each other socially out of necessity. With separate licences to serve different drugs, the opening hours & decor could be adjusted accordingly - amphetamine bars would open all night, junkie pubs would incorporate needle exchanges. Bar serving only cannabis & soft drinks would be as close as the UK could get to the informal Dutch 'coffee-bar' system.
The system of addicts registering with doctors amounted to licensing some users. Although widely admired, it was overwhelmed in the early Eighties by a heroin boom, financial cuts, & opposition from some drug clinics. Users get reliable clean drugs & other medical help. Society benefits as those who register have no need to commit crimes to get their fix. Consultant psychiatrist Dr John Marks, who still offers maintenance from a clinic on Merseyside, told the Independent Newspaper a few weeks ago that his patients had an average 6.8 convictions in the year before registering & 0.4 in the year after. Licensing for all drug users probably wouldn't work. Occasional users wouldn't register, & could still buy drugs informally from those who did. Since smokeable forms of heroin & cocaine have appeared there are far more casual users, who don't develop the habits until they have both the money & the psychological tendency to addiction. Medical registration never worked well for users of more than one drug, or at all for non-addictive drugs such as LSD & cannabis.
The system would add to NHS costs, though that would be partly countered by decreased illness among users getting better quality goods. Licensing users does not have to be done by doctors. No medical approval is needed for other potentially dangerous hobbies: gun owners have to apply to the police; motorcyclists take a skills test; mountaineers need no permits from anyone to put themselves at risk.
Manufacture/import licensing is the system used to control world wide tobacco dealing, which also worked for cannabis & opium crops in India under the British Empire. There are taxes & quotas on growing tobacco, sales through state controlled warehouses, export & import tariffs and licences for manufacturers, wholesalers & retail dealers. The public are discouraged from using it by high taxes, limits on advertising & health education. This may not seem very effective as this dangerous addictive drug is for sale on every street. Tobacco still causes more health damage than all the illegal drugs put together.
Very detailed proposals for legalising cannabis along these lines were presented to several US state legislatures in the Eighties - non e were agreed. It would be trickier to keep control of chemical drugs from factory sources to point of sale, but it is done for medicines. Criminal intelligence departments already keep a close eye on buyers of chemicals that could be made into illegal drugs.
The big problem with a tobacco model would be security for general-purpose shops selling drugs. Some addicts would still commit crimes to get their supplies, so security would have to be at least as good as at most off-licences. Perhaps there would be dispensing machines that would take cash or credit cards & drop the consumers' drug choice neatly wrapped into their hot little hands.
Licensed Drug Clubs.
Clubs with strict membership rules could be as tightly controlled as gun clubs or casino gambling, or as liberally as working mens clubs. Different clubs could cater for users of different drugs; quite a few existing night-clubs would happily sell Ecstasy & cannabis, even if it meant losing their drinks licence. A Licensed club would have the advantages of a drug-pub with less chance of encouraging new users. Some harm-reduction could be managed by price controls. People overdoing it could be warned by the landlord or by their friends & refused service. If part of the membership fee went on medical insurance there would be the equivalent of a register of users funding their own support network.
These ideas for alternatives to drug prohibition have two problems in common: International Law & Politics.
Drugs are a world-wide business & no method of controlling them can working only one country. Under the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, all the currently illegal substances must be limited to medical & scientific uses. It does not fix penalties but says that serious offences should be 'adequately punished'.
A broad interpretation is that this excludes personal possession, but the British government has never accepted this. To licence sales or imports, the Convention would have to be changed. There is also an agreement on border controls which would have to be amended.
The main problem is political. Laws & treaties can be changed, but nobody in the main parties would want to be the first to propose licensing drug sales. The day after Mr Grieve's speech, John Major's office fervently rejected any legal changes. They said that 'legislation is only favoured by American right wing free marketeers'. Tim Rathbone MP, who chairs a parliamentary group on drug abuse, said it would be 'doing nobody a favour if you try to find a short cut, which is what legislation is'. Only a handful of MPs support even reducing penalties for cannabis possession, which has been recommended by the Government's official advisers.
Government policy is to 'reduce the demand for, as well as the supply of, drugs'. The UK has the heaviest penalties in Europe, which have not reduced either supply or demand. Instead, drug related crime & social damage have multiplied enormously since penalties were increased in 1971. Yet politicians don't want to consider the idea that prohibition has been a failure.
One of the official arguments against 'licensing' is that there would be a blurring of distinctions between the dangers of different drugs. This is also a huge fault in the present law. We have exactly the same penalties for uppers, downers and mind benders, which have very different effects & are taken for very different reasons.
Changes in the way drugs are supplied would make it possible, at last, to have decent education in the differences between drugs, & in what ways each can be dangerous.
Addicts would still prostitute themselves or steal to raise money for their habits - as some drinkers do. There would still be a need for social services, rehabilitation clinics, and policing; but all should be easier in a more tightly monitored market.
There are also good financial reasons for state licensing of drugs, which would produce lots of tax money, save police resources, and damage the economic base of organised crime.
It's not a question of thinking the impossible: change is perfectly possible, given the political will. As Mr Grieve said, 'Either we go to war on dealers across the globe, or we have to come up with new options.'
Written by Sean Blanchard