The law on drugs and why it’s so, so wrong
In 1971, a strange thing happened.
Parliament decided, allegedly for public safety, it would control what people could and couldn’t use as a recreational drug.
This may sound, and at first reading to most does sound, like a perfectly sensible idea. The issue is that legally, scientifically and practically, it’s insane.
There were already laws that existed and criminalised drug use at the time, but these were lightly enforced and doctors could prescribe drugs for addicted people. In 1971, under pressure from the United Nations (UN), that changed.
Parliament passed a law, with little thought given to how it would work.
Vague guidelines about suspicion in s23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 quickly became free licences to search any person the police pleased.
The class of drugs has been used more as a political tool than a measure of safety. Amphetamines and cannabis are both class B drugs while, despite being far safer than amphetamines, MDMA is class A. The Science and Technology Select Committee in 2006 branded the methodology unscientific in a report titled Drug classification: making a hash of it? Yes, that was meant to be funny.
But, perhaps most damningly, it didn’t stop anyone using drugs.
There is, apparently, a consistent reduction of drug use. Every year we’re told less and less people are taking drugs — or at least admitting to it.
However, the drug misuse survey published by the office of national statistics found that one fifth of people in the 16-24-year-old bracket have taken drugs in the last year. This is down from one quarter a decade ago, but still astonishingly high. What other crime would we cheer at knowing one fifth of people in a single age bracket had committed it?
Even so, it’s going down — a success? Not quite.
1. Yes, drug use has been going down (or at least admitting to it has been) but that was after its inclusion in PSHE lessons, and the introduction of increased education about the risks. There was actually an increase in use after criminalisation which continued into the 1990s, with increased use by 16-25-year-olds being noted in the British medical journal. This is at least suggestive that the decrease is to do with education, not arrests.
2. Not only do these laws not stop anyone taking drugs, they make drug use more dangerous. Needle sharing, contact with violent criminals, debt and petty crime to feed habits are all increased by drug prohibition. Needle sharing is a major cause of HIV, and a minor criminal record for possession or petty crime to fund addiction is a major barrier to employment. This pushes people, already on the edge of society, almost completely out of it. It forces people further and further out, compounding the addiction problem. It’s even undermined our geopolitical objectives, funding terrorism including the Taliban and allegedly the IRA.
The policy has failed, but this doesn’t appear to matter. Early this year, it was extended by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which banned so-called legal highs.
It was bad legislation that — its first draft banned food, flowers and scented candles. It was described as a ban on pleasure by one barrister, and that’s all this really is.
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The entire policy of drug prohibition isn’t based on scientific safeguarding or intelligent social engineering — it’s the modern temperance movement. I wouldn’t advocate for the free sale of heroin to all those over 18. The harm hard drugs can do is obvious, but the drugs debate is always centred on morals. The debate is never driven by facts, figures or data, but slogans and TV rants.
Moralising about the awful effects of drug addiction is all very well, but setting up laws to compound the problem isn’t going to solve it. Punishing the addict — the primary victim of drug addiction — is a bit like punishing the victim of an assault. Saying they shouldn’t have walked through a dark area alone isn’t going to heal their bruises, or stop others doing so.
It’s time for a change in policy to truly reduce harm. There are several ideas, from consumption rooms, to legalising cannabis to decriminalisation of all drugs. While these do have up sides, I don’t favour them.
I want to have some control. So I believe we should allow charities, under licences, to produce and sell drugs to those over the age of 18. Additionally, certain drugs should have paraphernalia provided with them and should be consumed in consumption rooms. The state should set the price of these drugs, so no one can profit from them. They should also set the strength, which should be clearly labeled, to reduce accidental overdoses.
On the other side, the unlicensed sale of drugs should be heavily punished, to maintain control of the market, to control what is put in the drugs and how strong they are. If there is a legal outlet, which is safer, criminals will make little money, and have significant risks. This will drive them out of the market. Who would risk ten years in prison for £200 a month, and a lot of leg work?
There is of course the issue of supply. Initially there would have to be the supply from criminals. But, we can synthesise and produce these drugs ourselves. In fact last year two papers, published separately, found a way to turn sugar into opium (a few chemical reactions from heroin). We could find a similar method for other drugs and completely cut off funding for terrorists in a few years.
Some people may find the idea uncomfortable. I, however, find the waste of lives, potential and resources on a pointless exercise to be far more repulsive.
Peter Baker is a graduate from Aberystwyth University. He completed the GDL this year at BPP University and hopes to study the LPC.