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Modernising society’s approach to drugs legislation

In 2016 the UN General Assembly will hold a special session focusing on the global issue of drugs. To prepare for this, and to review UK drug policy, there will be a parliamentary conference next month. Could we be facing a change in official attitudes towards drug prohibition?

It seems inarguable that prohibitionist drug policy is failing to provide safety and stability for those the “war on drugs” purportedly protects. Drug trafficking is a violent industry steered by organised criminals reaping approximately $320m (ten times that of human trafficking), according to think-tank Transform. In Mexico alone, this trade has caused over 100,000 deaths between 2006 and the present; 93% of those infected with HIV in Russia contracted the disease through drug injection.

Closer to home, between 2013-14 nearly 200,000 people accessed drug dependency treatment in England (excluding prison treatment), and drug misuse deaths reported in 2013 reached almost 2,000 cases. At UEA, last year’s Concrete Drugs and Alcohol Survey found that over 60% of students had tried illegal drugs, and 90% had friends who regularly use. People, particularly young people and especially students, tend to take legal and illegal drugs. Humanity has always shown an interest in hedonistic escapism, and drug policy liberalisation would require rational acceptance of this fact, rather than identifying drug users as malicious criminals or deranged potheads.

The pull to experiment is so strong that medical and legal repercussions are not deterrents. This being the case, surely all parties would benefit from the government and healthcare services ensuring safe production and sourcing, substance quality control and guidelines for correct usage (such as the Global Drugs Survey’s Highway Code). This must be a more viable option than forcing lifestyle choices and allowing preventable deaths to occur. Young people and students, for example, if provided with such a framework, might be able to experiment relatively safely and in the knowledge that their future prospects are unlikely to be wrecked by a criminal record.
Of course, liberalisation is not an immediate or straightforward solution. Use of drugs – legal and illegal – always carries risks, regardless of how “safely” one uses them. Transform state the reasoning behind regulation as includes the notion that drugs are ‘potentially dangerous’ but are only made more dangerous when sold by ‘gangsters and unregulated dealers.’ Their website includes a list of five proposed models for regulation, including careful medical provision for registered dependents (presumably with the aim of eventual and safely acquired independence).

Liberalisation also has the potential to benefit society as a whole, not just drug users. Economically, for example, liberalisation of drug laws could provide significant benefits – not only in the reduction of public spending on emergency healthcare, prisons and drug law enforcement, but also in the provision of a significant source of income. The Netherlands’ famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) ‘coffee shops’, for instance, on a yearly basis produce $400m in tax revenues. However it must be stated that setting up a legal market could also, in our neoliberal society, leave consumers at the mercy of ruthlessly competitive companies. One answer to this is that drug consumers are already at the mercy of unscrupulous criminals – surely they ought to at least procure a safer product, in exchange for expense and risk.

Whether one supports legalisation, responsible regulation, or straightforward prohibition, something evidently must change about international drug policy. My own instinct is that prohibition is ineffective on many levels apart from, for example, providing politicians with a lucrative ideological platform, and examples of their own efforts against ‘immorality.’ There are more arguments on all facets of the debate than can be encompassed here – I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. As ever I advise readers to examine the wealth of resources online (whilst reminding them to be good university students and always call the angle of the source into question).
I do not naively believe that liberalisation will immediately solve the issues caused by substance abuse. Neither do I support the enforcement of irrational, puritanical restrictions. I have witnessed the positivity of sensible drug use, just as I have witnessed the negative after-effects of uninformed drug use on extremely intelligent and dedicated people, which I believe had they known better might not have occurred. I think that a carefully constructed system of drug regulation, not prohibition, combined with a focus on treatment over punishment for those dangerously entangled in the world of drug use, must surely be a more beneficial option for all involved.


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September 2021
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