On Tuesday, the Guardian published a piece by Richard Branson, the British billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom. They call for an immediate end to the war on drugs after four decades of the failure in the U.K. One quote in particular pithily sums up the catastrophe that most of the Western world has created through its crusade against drugs (while playing to Branson's strengths as a wildly successful businessman):
As an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns. If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like.
It's a simple sentiment, but it's a powerful one. It lays bare the way most of the West approaches drug policy: through an agenda driven by puritanical anxiety rather than a genuine desire to achieve tangible results.
The high cost of the war on drugs: In popular conversation and policy circles across the United States and Europe in recent years, the failures of the war on drugs have gone from something that people complain about quietly to something they complain about openly. Now apparently they're becoming the basis for manifestos by some of the most influential people in the Western world.
When you tally the numbers, the bottom line for the war on drugs is abysmal. The U.K. has spent over £1 trillion battling the drug trade since U.S. President Richard Nixon's 1971 declaration of war, according to Branson and Clegg. But today the sizable number of Britons who use illegal drugs is increasing, while thousands overdosing a year and crimes related to drugs still costing the U.K. £13.3 billion every year.
As Branson and Clegg point out, the government's punishing policy toward dealers and users cannot eliminate the law of supply and demand:
The idea of eradicating drugs from the world by waging a war on those who use them is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: it doesn't reduce drug-taking. The Home Office's own research, commissioned by Liberal Democrats in government and published a few months ago, found that "there is no apparent correlation between the 'toughness' of a country's approach and the prevalence of adult drug use". This devastating conclusion means that we are wasting our scarce resources, and on a grand scale.
So what is the alternative? Branson and Clegg laud the Portuguese model, which has in recent years become a shining example of how a country can resolve drug use by treating it as a health problem rather than a moral failure. Fourteen years after decriminalizing all drugs and beginning a robust public health regime meant to assist addicts, Portugal has witnessed a decline in usage, overdoses, and disease transmission.
The Portuguese experience is an extraordinary example, and Clegg and Branson are sensible for trying to persuade the U.K. to try to draw inspiration from their policies. As one Portuguese doctor explaining his country's acceptance of drug use as a human reality put it so elegantly for the New Yorker in 2011: "I prefer moderate hope and some likelihood of success to the dream of perfection and the promise of failure."