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Sunday 26 July 2009

The Laws Don’t Work – 2

Ask any Home Secretary about the “war on drugs”, or whatever it’s called this week, and the response will be of success, of criminals brought to justice, of shipments seized, of addition treated and restrained. It was thus with Jacqui Smith. It is almost certainly going to be the same with Alan Johnson. And – one hates to let down the proverbial Land of Hopeful Tories – if Young Dave is swept into 10 Downing Street, it will be the same with Chris Grayling.

And it’s not good enough. As I’ve already shown, the drugs get through, with the damage done made worse by the involvement of criminality, together with the threat of prosecution for those needing treatment. It’s the same across most of mainland Europe – but not all. The relaxed attitude towards marijuana in the Netherlands is well known (although the authorities’ attitude towards other substances is rather less benign), and then there is Portugal.

The central Baixa district of the city of Lisbon is one of my favourite places: from the Praça do Comércio, along the pedestrianised Rua Augusta, riding the Elevador de Santa Justa up to the Bairro Alto – or being lazy and taking a tram – evokes a genuinely old world feel within a modern capital. And here, as the Beeb’s Mark Easton has noted, the consumption of drugs – all or any of them – is no longer illegal. This has been true now for eight years. The sky has not fallen in, the fabric of society has not broken, and there has been no explosion in drug use. Why so?

Well, the Portuguese still go through a lot of smokes – and a recent indoor smoking ban hasn’t curbed that particular vice – and alcohol is not taxed to anything like the extent of the UK: you can get a whole litre of wine served at the table in an average neighbourhood cantinha for two and a half euro. But equally, alcohol is not consumed in the manner that has made Brits abroad so notorious – well, except by those same Brits.

But these factors impact only on the fringe: there has been no influx of drug tourists, and those heading to the Algarve have generally confined themselves to indulgence in Super Bock and Sagres. Lots more folks visit Lisbon nowadays, but this is predominantly because it’s an excellent city break destination, and good value for those from the UK even with a less favourable euro exchange rate.

However, I’d advise one caution: the Portuguese have only decriminalised drug usage. The supply of these substances is still in the hands of the criminally inclined, with that hurdle not yet tackled. But the example could easily be followed in the UK, provided the will is there, and the debate is engaged and won. And there lies the next hurdle: even to have the debate, in a reasoned and rational manner, will be the biggest of asks.

I’ll consider that next.

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