It is common knowledge that using illegal drugs can have severe consequences. The risks of putting unknown substances into your body are very real and incredibly high, and it is not uncommon to turn on the news to see another tragic life lost due to drug overdose. Our favourite nightclubs are closing down due to drug-related deaths, as substances are becoming stronger, cheaper and more ambiguous. Whilst new government legislation tries to keep up with the ever-changing drug scene, drug use is at an all time high and it is evident the battle is being lost. With drug use rising, is it time to admit the laws are not working and change our way of thinking?
According to The Tab, a massive 70% of students have admitted to trying illegal drugs at least once. Whilst the media frenzy surrounding drug use, and the sight of your course-mates chewing their faces off at the club on a Friday night might back up this claim, as sources go, The Tab is not the most reputable. Some may claim this number is exaggerated. However, the World Health Organisation’s 2012 World Drug Report reported that up to 250 million people worldwide used psychoactive substances in 2012, and a survey by The Guardian revealed nearly 15 million Brits – a third of the adult population – have admitted to trying one or more illegal drugs in the past; so even if the figure cited by The Tab is inflated, it is no exaggeration that drug use is seemingly commonplace. Although these figures may be shocking, it is nothing new. For thousands of years, people have been using psychoactive substances to actively change the way their mind and body function for uniquely different reasons. From the Beti-Pahuin people of West and Central Africa, who use the psychedelic Iboga plant in tribal rituals in an attempt to experience powerful hallucinations, to the British ravers of the ’80s and ’90s who took ecstasy to create the euphoric feeling that kept them dancing for hours, drug use has been a part of every culture and society for generations, in every part of the world.
Despite this, in the majority of countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, ALL psychoactive substances, bar alcohol and nicotine, are illegal. In the UK, consequences for possession, selling and buying drugs can range from fines and a criminal record to up to 14 years in prison. The maximum sentence for possession of cannabis is 5 years, yet despite this 6.6% of British adults use the drug.
The deterrence of the UK drug law, therefore, is not working. Like anti-abortion laws before it, even when illegal, women would find ways to terminate their pregnancies even if it meant risking breaking the law, and risking their own health and well-being. Similarly, restrictions on drugs do not stop people finding them, buying them and taking them, even when it may be unsafe. The government’s blanket ban has not done a thing to stop people using drugs and the policy is extremely outdated. There have been calls for more liberal policies regarding marijuana from the Liberal Democrats who have claimed that “regulating the sale of cannabis, controlling the potency and taking the trade away from criminals makes sense in terms of public health and community safety”, however I believe we should move further from this.
By regulating not just cannabis, but also MDMA, cocaine and other illicit substances, the tragic deaths caused by overdoses from these drugs could be prevented. By and large, deaths related to drug use come from the ambiguity of what the substance actually is. In 2015, two British tourists in Amsterdam died after purchasing the deadly substance white heroin, after being told it was cocaine, and likewise many deaths relating to the drug ecstasy usually come, not from the MDMA itself, but from deadly substances the MDMA is often substituted with, such as PMA. Regulation would mean this ambiguity would be diminished and lives could potentially be saved.
I understand, however, regulation is a controversial move. Drugs are, inherently dangerous themselves and so even in liberal societies like The Netherlands where cannabis and psychoactive substances like magic mushrooms are essentially “legal”, hard, class A drugs like MDMA and cocaine remain illegal because of the health risks and dangers they pose. What is not controversial however, and has been tried and tested in multiple European countries, most infamously in Portugal, is decriminalisation.
I believe decriminalisation of all drug use is the first step if the United Kingdom is ready to tackle its drug problem properly. Following Portugal’s example, drug use should not be treated as a crime but instead as a health issue. Although the drugs are still illegal, the Portuguese government help drug users to combat addition by rehabilitating them, instead of punishing them; and it is working. Portugal has one of the lowest rates of deaths by overdose compared to any other European country. While there are 44.6 overdose deaths per 1 million citizens in the UK, there are only 3 in Portugal. Decriminalisation didn’t cause a dramatic rise in drug use like many feared, and although experts cannot be sure that the low drug-related death rate is directly related to decriminalisation, the reality is Portugal has a hold of its drug problem and the UK does not.
Let’s bring ourselves into the 21st century. Drug use is not going away and it never will. Let’s follow Portugal’s example; stop criminalising, stop the fear-mongering and start saving lives.