Regardless of both their benefits and their legal status, there are varying degrees of health risks and numerous social problems which come as a result of taking drugs. To solely pinpoint individual users as the cause of these problems is absurd, and much of the blame can instead be attributed to the large scale policy of prohibition practiced worldwide.
With regards to the UK, its system of classification of illegal drugs, despite a few adjustments, has remained in stature since 1971 following the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Though presumably substances classified as ‘class A’ are to be considered the most harmful and dangerous drugs, the act gives no criteria of harm or dangerousness by which they are to be judged. For this reason it has been criticised for being contrary to scientific evidence, and has also been scrutinised for omitting widely used legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. A 2010 journal by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs ranked the dangers of drugs using more balanced risk assessment and its conclusions are largely disparate with the law’s official classification. Among the report’s findings is that heroin, crack, and crystal meth are the most harmful drugs to individuals, but that alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine are the most harmful to society. The leader of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, the psychologist Professor David Nutt, was in fact sacked from his position as a government advisor for criticising the ranking of the comparatively less harmful drug ecstasy as a class A. Similarly the Labour MP Bob Ainsworth was recently hauled over the coals for expressing opinions on drug policy which not did conform to the views of his party’s front line members, and indeed, that of the general attitude of politicians. Such instances are evident to parliament’s refusal to address the issue seriously.
Even without this seemingly arbitrary classification system, the criminalising of drug use is an issue in itself for numerous reasons. Certain areas of the world, such as coca producing regions of Central America and states with large produces of opium such as Afghanistan, are affected by large scale violence resulting both directly and indirectly from the criminal organisations who control drug trafficking. One particular example is that of Mexico, where drug related conflict has escalated to the point of a low intensity war between the drug cartels and the military. Much support in that region comes from the US government in their ‘War on Drugs’, on which last year the Obama administration spent over $15 billion. In the UK the level of violence and expenditure is less severe, but none the less a cause for concern. The Home Office has estimated that half of all property crime is related to fundraising to buy illegal drugs. Furthermore, over half of the UK’s prison population is made of convicts dependent on heroin and crack, of whom time spent in rehabilitation centres is far more effective than penalisation. In 2009, a report by the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation places the total cost of the current prohibition policy at £16bn. Persisting with attempts to combat an illegal trade of which there is a constant demand is not only futile but a waste of money.
Absolute prohibition is not the only form of drug policy practised in the world. Other countries have taken various measures in liberalising their laws with degrees of success. In 2001 Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for possessing drugs. For users that are caught, their drug use is treated as a social problem as opposed to a crime. The results have been effective, in the ensuing time the country has seen addiction rates, teenage drug use and HIV infections decline. The Netherlands has been using a similar policy since the early ’70s, with possession and use of cannabis and other ‘soft drugs’ such as hallucinogenic mushrooms being legal under the condition of ‘personal use’ – meaning that it is tolerated so long as it is taken in a limited and controlled way (such in the country’s famed coffee shops). Recent efforts to legalise, control and tax cannabis in the US state of California through the Proposition 19 ballot failed, but with a 46.2% vote of supporters. Nonetheless, the drug remains easily accessible in the state under its medical marijuana program.
Complete legalisation of all drugs is considered too radical a policy for many. Indeed legalisation to the point where drugs are freely available and able to be endorsed and advertised by corporations would arguably be as harmful as prohibition. Therefore if measures are taken to liberalise the UK’s drug policies, what must be stressed is the regulation of the availability and supply. Such management could be taken in a variety of ways, either by making drugs available through prescription, pharmacy sales and licensed outlets and premises (e.g. a public house or coffee shop). It would also ensure that the purity of the substances is clean, as opposed to being cut with other chemicals (which are often more harmful). Standardised units and fixed prices could also be implemented, and produce more tax revenue. Such propositions have been proposed by organisations such as the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation and the Drug Equality Alliance, both of which in their respective linked literature go into these ideas in far more detail than I can in the space of this article.
It is quite obvious that the problems associated with taking drugs cannot be entirely eradicated, no less by our current ineffective methods. The most urgent requirement for a change in drug policy comes from a change in attitude from those who can implement such changes, one which will be based in reason and accurate information as opposed to implementing fear and force.