The pros and cons of legalising drugs

Jun 19, 2015

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

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The legalisation of cannabis in some US states has not led to a rise in adolescent use, a US study published on Monday found, adding fuel to the debate about drugs laws.

The findings, published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, found that while cannabis use was generally higher in the states that had passed medical marijuana legislation before 2014, the passage of such laws did not affect the rate of marijuana use in those states. 

British experts pushing for medicinal and research use of the drug welcomed the news. "Patients with ... severe health problems are currently being denied effective treatment in the UK," Professor Val Curran, the UK's foremost expert on medical marijuana, wrote on Monday in a report for the All Party Parliament Group for Drug Policy Reform.   

A Home Office report published last year concluded that harsh punishments do nothing to discourage drug use, leading to new calls for a fresh approach to drug legislation at a time in which a move towards more relaxed cannabis restrictions seems to be a global trend. 

Jamaica decriminalised the possession of small amounts of the drug in February, and in Portugal, the possession of small quantities of any drug has been decriminalised.

In December 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to make it legal to grow, consume and sell the plant. That said, all sales must pass through a government-run marketplace, and the administration has yet to set up that system. Twenty-three US states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes and Washington became the first to permit the recreational use of the plant in 2012, despite a federal ban.  Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. Cannabis went on sale in Washington in July 2014.

In the UK, a group of experts and celebrities recently wrote to the government making the case for decriminalising the possession of outlawed drugs. Cannabis has been classified as a Class B drug in the UK since 2008, carrying a prison sentence of up to five years for possession. 

The pros and cons of legalising drugs

Pro: The war on drugs creates addicts

Russell Brand, Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Michael Mansfield QC were among high-profile signatories to the open letter asking for a reappraisal of drugs policies, The Independent reported last year. They wanted David Cameron to consider decriminalising possession.

Release, the organisation which organised the letter, 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 year: "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 year 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.

Con: Regulation may overstep the mark

The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 classifies drugs as illegal in the UK based on their chemical compounds. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that, due to small alterations in the chemical formulae of illegal drugs, two new legal highs are discovered in Europe every week. In an effort to combat this trend, ministers have introduced a law banning all psychoactive substances, which could technically cover everything from hot chocolate to heroine, The Guardian reports. Notably, caffeine, food and nicotine are exempt. Among the proposed banned substances are drugs that have been legally sold and used in the UK for decades, such as laughing gas and poppers.

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 currently only results 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. Even the US State Department acknowledges that Jamaica is the largest Caribbean supplier of marijuana to the United States. 

The Pope wouldn't like it

Pope Francis has tarnished his glowing liberal credentials as the tweeting pontiff who spoke inclusively about gay people, denounced "unbridled capitalism" and reached out to Muslims, by speaking out against decriminalisation. 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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