Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." How right he was. He also, less famously, observed that "the prestige of government has...been lowered considerably by the prohibition law, and that nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law...than passing laws which cannot be enforced." The result of this, he correctly noted, was "the dangerous increase of crime in this country." Although he was speaking about his experience of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, his observation still rings true for that other great experiment in state led insanity: drug prohibition.
We have now entered the second century of this disastrous experiment which continues to destroy countless lives, tear apart families and communities, and propagate human rights abuses across the globe. But there are signs of change around the world. Even the traditionally hard-line United States has seen politicians from both the right and left slowly begin to form an unlikely consensus about the failures of this trillion dollar war of choice.
With Britain in the midst of swingeing budget cuts, the luxury of being able to throw twelve billion pounds a year after these bad policies has disappeared. The fiscal squeeze choking at all levels of society is set to get far worse before it gets better. It will leave almost all aspects of British life worse off for decades. The field of drugs, however, provides a bizarre case where a well managed fiscally conservative approach could bring about a far better social outcome than the status quo.
Traditionally we have been presented with a choice between either militant prohibition, or unregulated legalisation as the only available options. The reality is far more nuanced. We need just look to some pioneering states that departed from the status quo and pursued better and more creative solutions than the two mentioned above. If there is any overarching lesson to be gleaned from their experiences, it is that there is no single solution, no silver bullet. There is instead a full spectrum of workable policies that can contribute to a successful and multifaceted approach to this complex problem. For example, two immediate and pragmatic steps that the government can and should take are the following:
Firstly, it should decriminalise the simple possession of all drugs. Criminalising use has never provided a successful deterrent, while ending it would save significant amounts of police time and resources, which could then be refocused on crimes like theft and assault. The recent evidence from Portugal, which decriminalised all drugs a decade ago, suggests that drug use has stayed more or less flat (even falling amongst younger people), while the negative aspects of drug use decreased markedly as users have developed a trust for, and greater access to, state-run treatment and healthcare programs.
Secondly, there should be a widespread roll out of legally proscribed Heroin on the NHS. This is already taking place in parts of Britain, and is established government policy in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. All have witnessed significant decreases in crime, disease and cost to the taxpayer, as a direct result. The program has the additional benefit of bringing users into contact with trained medical professionals who can then shepherd them into life saving treatment and help them gain control of their addiction while building stable lives.
As a student and historian of international drug control, I view the notion that our prohibition model is the result of informed science and rational debate as an insipid lie. Prohibition is instead the product of a centuryís international legal sausage-making whereby professional moralisers and self-serving bureaucrats set the terms of the debate. When the failures of their approach became apparent during the ensuing decades, the response of the control bureaucracies was, time and again, to batten down the hatches and push on with the same approach regardless.
Now, with the daily tit for tat of the drug war still playing out on our streets, a growing number of countries are willing to break from the failing status quo. Britain, similarly, has a serious opportunity to fundamentally reshape its failed approach to drugs and effect significant savings and social improvements in the process. The tragedy, however, is that her leaders seem more comfortable with repeating the same mistakes over and over, knowing full well that they will achieve the same failing results. Doing this in the face of an enormous economic crisis really is the definition of insanity.
John Collins is a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).