Why not... legalise drugs?

Syringe and heroin powder

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A look at eye-catching policy ideas that are often talked about but never seem to feature in UK general election campaigns.

The background

Drug prohibition began in the UK during World War I, when the possession, distribution and sale of cocaine and opium was outlawed. Cannabis was added to the list in 1920, in line with international treaties.

For many years, in contrast to the US, the emphasis was on treatment rather than punishment. Heroin was prescribed to addicts on the NHS. But the climate changed in the 1960s, with the explosion in drug use among young people.

The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which categorises drugs by their perceived harm, remains the key piece of legislation.

In 2002, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, downgraded cannabis to Class C, only for it to be reclassified as Class B by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown five years later.

As a young Tory MP, David Cameron backed more lenient penalties for the possession of cannabis and ecstasy - and allowing heroin to be prescribed to addicts in "shooting galleries". He was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it called for an international debate on the legalisation of drugs.

Since entering Number 10, he has changed his view and now supports the current laws, in common with his Labour counterpart. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said last year that the "war on drugs" was lost and a review of all options was needed.

Danny Kushlick: The case for legalisation

In 1961 the world embarked on a US-led act of collective folly when it identified the non-medical use of specific drugs, including cannabis, cocaine and heroin, as a global threat and attempted to rid the world of them using punitive enforcement.

Danny Kushlick

Danny Kushlick
  • Founded Transform Drug Policy Foundation in 1997
  • Transform is a charitable think tank that campaigns for drug prohibition to be replaced by "effective, just and humane government control and regulation"
  • Previously worked for Bristol Drugs Project, the Big Issue Foundation, Bath Area Drugs Advisory Service and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro)

After 50 years of global prohibition, drugs are cheaper, more available and widely used than ever before; a $300bn (£190bn) a year - and still growing - trade has been gifted to organised criminals and unregulated dealers - creating vast costs for those least able to bear them - undermining public health and human rights, fuelling crime, corruption and conflict, and destabilising entire regions.

So, why has this war not been ended? Why do politicians continue to support it? The fundamental answer is disturbing. Prohibition clearly does not work for the vast majority of the world's citizens. However, it meets the needs of the world's superpowers, who can resource and engage their military, police and criminal justice systems, all justified in the war against the global "drug menace".

And at the same time it meets the needs of global financial markets who launder the billions in illicit profits. As an example HSBC was recently fined $1.9bn for, among other things, laundering $881m of drug cartel money.

To reorient policy in favour of ordinary people, the simple solution is to explore responsible legal regulation of drugs markets. It is a position increasingly supported by Latin American presidents and indeed the US, where citizens in Washington State and Colorado recently voted to legally regulate cannabis markets.

And what of the UK, where 67% of the population support a review of all drug policy options? Despite his previous support for reform, since coming to power David Cameron has become a drug warrior, whilst [Labour leader] Ed Miliband appears to have deserted the most disadvantaged and marginalised by avoiding the drugs issue completely. However, party leaders will shift if voters across the political spectrum prioritise it at election time.

If not, senior politicians will remain in thrall to the US, and the UK will maintain its fervent support for a policy that serves the needs of the elite at the expense of the vast majority.

Kevin Sabet: The case against legalisation

It is easy to be dissatisfied with current drugs policies. Kids report they can get drugs relatively easily, and too many of us have suffered the heartbreak of addiction affecting a loved one or ourselves. The market for drugs is violent and deadly.

Kevin Sabet

Kevin Sabet
  • Doctorate from the University of Oxford, in social policy, as a Marshall Scholar
  • Author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana
  • Former adviser on drugs policy in the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations
  • Co-Founder, with Patrick J Kennedy, of Project Sam (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a "third way" drug policy organisation

But being unhappy with the drug abuse in society is no reason to legalise drugs. In fact, the best evidence we have shows that legalisation would make a bad drug problem much worse - by increasing addiction, normalising use among kids, and relegating its sale to profit-hungry corporations or governments with every incentive to increase addiction to advance their bottom line. Legalisation is a very sloppy way to address the unintended consequences of current policy.

First, we know that legalisation would significantly cheapen the price of cocaine, cannabis, and heroin, making them more accessible and therefore increasing addiction. Additionally, allowing drugs to be sold on the open market implies we would allow the sale of highly dangerous drugs such as crack and methamphetamine by multinational conglomerates.

Big Tobacco would have nothing on Big Meth.

Second, it is unclear that a major attraction of legalisation - the supposed reduction of the violent, underground market - would materialise. As governments put restrictions like age limits on legal drugs, the illicit economy will be happy to step in to fill the gap. We know now that at least 22% of the UK domestic tobacco market consists of black market illegal cigarettes.

Yes, mass incarceration is a bad thing. And the developing world is being torn apart by the UK's appetite for drugs. But rather than legalise - which would increase crime and potentially increase incarceration rates - we should invest more in strategies such as drug treatment, specialised drug treatment courts, better drug prevention, smart enforcement, and international partnerships that promote alternative development.

The UK is moving in the right direction. By expanding treatment and recovery services over the past decade, drug use has fallen almost 15% between 2005 and 2011. But we still have more work to do.

In the legalisation debate, misleading promises and silver bullets abound. Proceed with caution.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    drug legislation by those who have no knowledge or experience of the substances they are passing judgement upon is ridiculous, you wouldn't get that situation in any other area of law... it's more like a religion with them, blindly following dogma without question or reasoning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.


    It isn't, mores the pity, the politicians who are too stupid to tell the truth...

    ...it is the voting public who are (collectively) too stupid to listen...

    ...after all they have their "gut instinct" to go & that couldn't possibly ever lead their opinions astray could it...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    It would make sense to legalise cannabis because then it could be taxed much like cigarettes and contrary to what "experts" tell the country cannabis does not lead to users moving on to herorin becasue cannabis is a sedative, heroin is an opioid

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    11. Montys Flying Circus

    People irresponsibly take to alcohol too, smash up public property, fight and vomit everywhere. Then you get alcoholics, who have a physical need to get their drink, drinking till their liver is destroyed.

    Does that mean we should ban alcohol too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The nearest parallel is alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920's - a disaster by anyone's reckoning.

    Prohibition was the life-blood of organised crime - and ending it, cut off their main supply of money (and forced them into new activities - like - er, drug-dealing).

    We must cut off criminals from what they most desperately want - money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Legalising drugs would allow the government to tax them, to regulate sources, apply age limits, and it will keep people out of prison.
    Someone goes to prison for a minor drug offense, they get into harder drugs inside, they get out and are unemployable, and are forced into crime, which usually involves dealing. It's a vicious cycle that the government seems intent on perpetuating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    if 22% of the tobacco market is bootleg or fake, that is a reflection of the extortionate duty imposed upon legitimate product sales.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Ever since I read how one of the main narcotic cartels in Mexico was secretly donating money for American senator consistently voting for 'war on drugs' I became sceptical about the whole point of it. Who is really gaining from billions of money being spent fighting the obviously unwinnable war?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Legalising cannabis in the UK would make sense, as people who want it would not have to go to drug dealers and be tempted to buy other drugs. However, as long as companies like GWPharma can make Sativex, a very effective cannabis-derived painkiller for neuropathic pain which other painkillers don't work on, and sell it at £11 per day on the NHS, there is no chance of legalisation! Profit rules!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    We are forgetting just how many economic problems we would give ourselves if we went down this path. Consider all of the police and vice squad jobs - gone. Think of all the social working jobs - gone. Think of all the correctional and legal jobs - gone.

    So yes, it would be great to be ethical and intellectually sound but we live in a capitalist monetary system, and we just can't afford to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    What is the moral authority of a government to regulate what a person puts into his or her body? If I hurt somebody else, fine, stop me - but if someone chooses to take a drug, it's up to them. Law exists to regulate our behaviour towards others, not towards ourselves. Get drunk, OK: drive while drunk, not OK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The chemicals themselves aren't the main problem, it's the crime and the misery it causes. Crime doesn't waste its time with legal stuff, so legalisation would remove a major cause of the trouble surrounding drugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The amount of misery and crime caused by Drugs Prohibition is insane, practically it doesn't work and to take another view point what gives the Elites the right to interfere in peoples lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Havign watched several people descend into madness and paranoia from cannabis use, noting that many of the proponents of the legalisation of drugs are users (ie adicts), I can only conclude that drugs should not be available.

    If there was a mandatory sentence of two years hard labour for using drugs (first offence) we would prevent many people from stupid dabbling. Prevention is the key.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Sabet does not make a case against legislation,what are "misleading promises & silver bullets",and this "violent underground market"he speaks of,I've been smoking cannabis for 44 years and never seen any violence involved.
    And the "developed world being torn apart",perhaps he's referring to alcohol use in the UK,then I would agree with him.
    Too many cliches Mr Sabet and no real substance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Modern translation - Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.

    Original translation - And God saith, 'Lo, I have given to you every herb sowing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree sowing seed, to you it is for food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    You cannot legalise drugs because politicians are not intelligent enough to tell anyone else the truth about them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Drug prohibition just hasnt worked, period. In fact its worse now than ever before.
    Theres no shame in admitting your previous methods were wrong.
    Stop arresting kiddies with a joint & people who take a pill to dance, decriminalise & regulate, watch the saved money on policing & tax roll in, then maybe use it for education on drugs (i dont mean the current scaremongering methods either)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It is amazing that our govt continues to criminalise huge portions of the population for simply exploring their own consciousness with the same tools that humanity has used since the dawn of communication. Cannabis should be free as it used to be, why do we need protected from ourselves? I am sick of giving my money to criminals for what i see as life medicine, we demand medicinal standards.


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