The pros and cons of legalising drugs in the UK

A jar of medical marijuana

A tide of support for legalising drugs seems to be rising around the world. Could it work here too?

LAST UPDATED AT 11:16 ON Thu 30 Oct 2014

A Home Office report has concluded that harsh punishments do nothing to dissuade people from using drugs, leading campaigners to renew calls for a fresh approach to drug legislation. 

The report, which has divided politicians and is said to have caused "panic" among officials, follows moves in several countries to legalise or decriminalise the use of some drugs.

This summer Jamaica announced it would decriminalise the possession of small amounts of cannabis, and in December, Uruguay became the first nation to make it legal to grow, consume and sell the plant. In Portugal, the posssession of small quantities of any drug has been decriminalised.

More than half of US states allow marijuana for medical purposes and Washington became the first to permit the recreational use of the plant in 2012, despite a federal ban, with Colorado following earlier this year. Cannabis went on sale in Washington in July.

In the UK, a group of experts and celebrities recently wrote to the government making the case for decriminalising the possession of outlawed drugs. So what are the pros and cons of legalising the possession of drugs, including cannabis?

Pro: The war on drugs creates addicts

Russell Brand, Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Michael Mansfield QC were among high-profile signatories to a letter to the government asking for a reappraisal of drugs policy organised by campaign group Release, The Independent reported last week. They want David Cameron to consider decriminalising possession.

Release says arresting users "creates more harm for individuals, their families and society". It says that if users are not "caught up in the criminal justice system" they have a better chance of escaping addiction and says evidence from other countries proves this. For example, they say users of ‘soft’ drugs like cannabis are more likely to try something harder, including heroin, when both are illegal.

Con: Legalising drugs would create addicts

Kevin Sabet, a leading US academic and opponent of drug liberalisation, told The Guardian last week: "Legal regulation has been a disaster for drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Both of those drugs are now sold by highly commercialised industries who thrive off addiction for profit." He concluded: "What we need is much smarter law-enforcement, coupled with real demand reduction in places like Europe and the US." At a time when governments are uniting to stop people smoking, should they really be becoming more laissez-faire about drug use?

Pro: If you can’t beat them, regulate them

Sir William Patey, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, ruffled feathers last week when he came out in favour of legalising the trade in opium poppies, from which heroin is derived. Writing in The Guardian, Patey said it was impossible to stop Afghan farmers from growing and exporting opium illegally, and concluded that "if we cannot deal effectively with supply" the only alternative is to "limit the demand for illicit drugs by making a licit supply of them available from a legally-regulated market". This would create stability and peace in drug-producing nations.

Pro: Ganja is good for business

In Jamaica, one of the major arguments in favour of decriminalising ganja, as cannabis is known there, was an economic one. As well as making possession less dangerous (it will now only result in a fine), the government has now legalised growing for medical purposes.

The island hopes for a gold-rush selling the drug to US states which allow its therapeutic use, says the Daily Telegraph. (It is already a major exporter to America, illegally.) There is also a thriving, but illegal, marijuana tourism industry which will benefit from decriminalisation.

Con: The Pope wouldn’t like it

Pope Francis last month tarnished his glowing liberal credentials as the tweeting pontiff who spoke inclusively about gay men, denounced "unbridled capitalism" and reached out to Muslims. Francis is a native of Argentina, which borders Uruguay where cannabis is now legally grown and smoked.

He said legalising recreational drugs was "highly questionable" and would "fail to produce the desired effects", reported the Daily Mail. He added that legalisation was "a veiled means of surrendering to the problem".

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