George Walford: Government Supports Pushers

In 1983 the Spanish government (socialist) decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use while retaining penalties for dealing. An article in the Sunday Times (13 October 1991) now reports the authorities admitting the presence of over 100,000 addicted to hard drugs in Madrid, a demonstration of 20,000 “from five poor suburbs” demanding stronger action against the pushers, and a teen-age gang in Barcelona using chains, iron bars and sticks to beat up addicts. (Dealers are let alone since they carry guns). The article speaks of drug abuse having moved to the top of the political agenda, and of “a dramatic surge of popular protest against uncontrolled drug trafficking in Spain, where frustration with liberal drug laws has boiled over into violence and angry protests.”

Reports of damage caused by drugs need to be read against the historical background; until early in this century opium, cocaine and heroin were on uncontrolled sale (heroin being especially useful in cough-mixtures), and although harm undoubtedly resulted, Freud (among others) becoming addicted to cocaine and opium being used to quieten crying babies, nothing occurred to cause widespread public protest.

Drug-abuse has become a serious social problem as attempts to end it have strengthened; these attempts, producing the use of dirty needles, spreading herpes and AIDS, bear responsibility for much of the damage. Prohibition raises the price, making dealing immensely profitable, and this effect grows stronger with every seizure of supplies, since greater scarcity brings higher prices.

The Spanish authorities seem to have chosen the worst of all possible worlds, relieving the customers of penalties while maintaining the restrictions on dealing that keep the prices up, stimulating ing the pushers. Full legalisation would bring the profit-margin down towards that now obtained by shopkeepers, leaving the dealers with no more incentive to push heroin than greengrocers have to push cabbage. This would not stop harmful indulgence in drugs, but it would remove one powerful incentive, and in any case the right to go to hell in your own way really is inalienable. The addicts, in the face of all attempts at suppression, are now busily proving this.

Given sufficiently widespread support for the removal of prohibition government can be expected to comply; it consistently gives way before the big numbers. Unfortunately that support seems unlikely to be forthcoming; the Spanish popular movement, as reported, is demanding more restriction.

from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.