February 22, 2014
Opponents of direct democracy are, more often than not, actuated by fear of the electorate. Referendums, they fret, will bring out the worst in us: we’d have mass deportations and capital punishment and the castration of sex offenders. Even if this were true, I’m not sure it would be a knock-down argument. But it isn’t true. When you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.
One of the Coalition’s first reforms was to introduce an e-petition mechanism. While it stops short of triggering referendums, it does allow groups who gather over 100,000 signatures to force MPs to consider their proposals. So far, the requests have been remarkably sensible: lower fuel duty, full disclosure of the Hillsborough documentation, a pardon for Alan Turing, an In/Out referendum.
Now another e-petition has made the 100,000 mark, this one calling for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Its language is moderate and reasonable. Its sponsors, led by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, don’t demand immediate legalisation. Rather, they want a sober assessment of whether the current policy is doing more harm than good.
Most quantitative analyses conclude that legalisation would bring net advantages. Drugs-related crime would diminish, police time (and court time) would be freed up, the quality of the product could be regulated and VAT charged. And that’s before we get into the monstrous consequences which prohibition brings to the countries where most of the narcotics are grown. On the other hand, legalisation would cut prices, and so almost certainly drive up consumption. That’s the trade-off.