BY SEAN MARTIN-IVERSON
Michael Arnold (GLW #455) makes a very good case for drug legalisation as an alternative to "law and order" or "harm minimisation" strategies. Sadly, many people in the campaign for drug law reform have been pursuing ambiguous decriminalisation approaches that perpetuate many of the problems associated with prohibition, or strictly medical approaches that ignore the social context of drug use.
However, I think that socialists need to argue for a more specific solution to the "drug problem" than just legalisation. Would the interests of drug users be served by an open market drug industry? Though there may be some improvements, the profit motive would ensure that drug quality and composition would continue to be compromised. Even restricted advertising would spread fraudulent and distorted information regarding the benefits and risks of drug use. Just think of the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries today!
Socialists should argue not just for legalisation, but for a nationalised drugs industry under democratic control. This would have tremendous benefits in terms of health, safety and drug quality control as well as affordability. In the context of a planned socialist economy, democratic decisions could be made about how resources should be allocated to the production and distribution of drugs.
Most likely, a significant proportion of the wealth now tied up in the drug trade could be redirected to other areas such as education. People could be encouraged to grow their own pot, or smoking-grade pot could be grown as one element in a sustainable hemp industry. The existing opium poppy industry could be extended for affordable heroin production in addition to medical opiates. "Designer drugs" could be produced in small quantities for consumption as well as research.
Both legal cash crops such as coffee and drugs crops return measly sums to their Third World producers in comparison to the massive profits earned by First World distributors, brokers and investors. Unlike legal producers, however, opium growers and cocoleros face the extra burden of having their crops destroyed and their organising efforts crushed in the name of "the war on drugs". This serves the interests of drug profiteers by driving end-prices up while keeping the amount paid to producers at starvation levels. While legalisation in one country could not solve these problems, a nationalised industry could at least purchase its crops from Third World growers at fair (or more than fair) prices.
Obviously, legalisation and nationalisation of the drugs industry would meet with a strong backlash from the US and its international "war on drugs" apparatus. A socialist state which instituted such measures would no doubt be declared a "narco-terrorist" state or an evil commie drug empire. It would probably not be in the interests of a socialist state to use the drugs industry to generate revenue. However, most other socialist measures would also meet with vehement and possibly violent opposition from the world's major capitalist states.
Arnold makes the point that we simply don't know exactly which harmful aspects of drug use are caused primarily by prohibition. Similarly, speculation about how socialist solutions to poverty and alienation would affect drug use can only be definitively answered in practice. However, even under capitalism, a strong "drug reform" movement that argued for a socialist approach to the drug industry could win some important reforms. Socialists, and the Socialist Alliance, need to carefully consider what specific proposals to put forward, but we should not restrict ourselves to what seems possible under the current system.
[Sean Martin-Iverson is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Perth.]