The bulk of left-liberal opinion (and some libertarian right viewpoints) both in this country and internationally, is that the current laws on drugs are ineffectual in terms of combating drug use. They are also seen as quite harmful in needlessly criminalising whole groups of people, particularly those from deprived backgrounds whose prospects (and addiction) are made worse by being imprisoned or saddled with a criminal record. Amongst middle-class professionals this view of the current drug laws as being antiquated, out of touch and needing reform, is so widespread that to support the drug laws or continued criminalisation is tantamount to being labelled a red in tooth and claw reactionary.
Drug law reformers also point to the hypocrisy of the current laws: Cannabis is illegal but tobacco, killing a minimum of a quarter-of-a-million people per year, is freely available in any corner shop, albeit fringed by graphic and lurid health warnings. Similarly, heroin undoubtedly a powerful, highly addictive and lethal drug incurs the full wrath of the law for supply and possession, but alcohol which also causes misery and harm in our communities is again freely available. In terms of harm caused, there is no medical or scientific rationale to our current drug laws, otherwise tobacco and alcohol would be classified as Class ‘A’ substances alongside heroin or cocaine.
Finally, the drug laws by taking substances out of the open market confine them to the hands of criminals who can set up whole distribution networks and make huge profits from them. Drug users, addicted to the substances which dealers bring into the community, now have to steal or prostitute themselves to fulfil their habits. In the process they are liable to being arrested and imprisoned, embarking on a further downward spiral. In addition, as there is no quality control over what goes into illegal drugs, street drug users are constantly at risk from overdoses and a variety of other health risks that can often culminate in death.
The charge sheet against the current drug laws then seems pretty damming. But do these charges really stack up? It is frequently said that if something is repeated often and stridently enough then it takes on the status of a truth, irrespective of what is actually going on. And for many groups of people exposed to the high-profile of the anti-drug laws lobby, it is self-evident that our drug laws are an encumbrance, nay even counter-productive rather than as a means to protect the individual and the community. So is there any merit in our drug laws, or should they be substantially reformed, even scrapped wholesale?
Tobacco and alcohol do cause immense harm and there is no doubt that if both substances were to be ‘discovered’ today with all of our knowledge of toxic effects and harmful, long-tern consequences, they would be classified as Class ‘A’ drugs (the most stringent classification under the UK Misuse of Drugs Act, earning the severest penalties) and would be dealt with resolutely by law enforcement agencies on the same scale as they currently deal with heroin or cocaine. But the point is that they weren’t discovered today and we’re looking at this from the benefit of hindsight.
Alcohol has been consumed in human societies for millennia, used for ritualistic purposes in many civilizations. From the middle-ages it has been extensively taken as part of a recreational and social way to relax. Today, in western cultures, it has become an acceptable substance that can be used at set times within a variety of social settings. To be sure, alcohol causes immense problems and a significant minority of people who use it become dependent on it, with dreadful consequences. But the overwhelming majority of people who drink alcohol, even fairly regularly will not come into problems with taking it. That is because they will use it at times (parties, celebrations) and places (the weekend or holidays) that do not cut across or impinge on any other commitments. Indeed it is when people start drinking outwith these places and times (at work, or in the morning for instance) that we talk of someone having a ‘drink problem’.
Alcohol is such an acceptable part of the social landscape of western societies and so culturally integrated within them that to attempt to ban it now would be counter-productive and totally ineffective, as was witnessed by the one serious attempt to do so in a western country: that of Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and early 1930s.
As for tobacco, it was not even regarded as either addictive or unhealthy until the 1950s. This substance, which is probably one of the most lethal, is seemingly innocuous. Apart from bad breath and a lingering smell on your clothes, tobacco causes no substantial change in behaviour, apart from a very short-term initial mild ‘buzz’ as cravings are assuaged. Compared to the massive changes in emotions and moods wrought by alcohol, cocaine, heroin and the rest, tobacco does virtually nothing for the individual smoking it. And yet, not only is it physically very addictive, but it causes very serious damage to the body. But it was only from the mid-20th century onwards, backed up by intensive medical research, that it was proved beyond doubt that tobacco is lethal.
The point in both the cases of alcohol and tobacco is that these were culturally acceptable long before our current awareness of their addictive and really harmful properties were apparent.
Now whereas, somewhat belatedly, we have discovered that tobacco is a dangerous drug witness the numbers who have and are being seriously damaged by it, throughout the long history of its use, the vast majority of people using alcohol have encountered no problems with it. By contrast, throughout their relatively short history heroin and cocaine have caused serious problems, including death, for the vast majority of people who take them. Pro reform advocates or those wishing to legalise drugs would contend that the problems of heroin and cocaine are not intrinsic to the drugs but stem from the fact that they are illegal and, therefore, impure and cut with all sorts of adulterants. There is some mileage in this; to repeat there is no quality control with illicit drugs witness the current spate of heroin deaths in Scotland caused by anthrax spores mixed in with street heroin. But deaths and overdose due to impurities are a tiny minority of heroin and cocaine related deaths; most fatalities are due to the lethal properties of the drugs themselves and this will not change even if they were sound quality control procedures in place.
The point is that heroin and cocaine are inherently lethal drugs that carry very serious risks attached to them, not least overdose in the case of heroin or serious cardiovascular problems in the case of cocaine. Yes, alcohol can be extremely dangerous if taken excessively as any glance around our streets at weekends will confirm. But this is the consequence of an excessive binge drinking culture, not the use of alcohol per se. ‘Moderate’ (however defined) use of alcohol is both possible and enjoyable as confirmed by tens of millions of people worldwide. Moderate use of heroin or cocaine and fitting this into a normal lifestyle encompassing work, family and other commitments is simply not a viable option for the overwhelming majority of people unfortunate enough to start using them on a regular basis.
It is also important to note that the numbers of people in countries such as the UK, who use substances like heroin or cocaine, are a fraction of those who use alcohol and tobacco. This is the real point of comparison; if the number of people who use the former were to increase to that of the latter we would see a substantial rise in the numbers of people overdosing or coming into harm through using them, precisely because of their inherent lethality.
We currently have an alcohol problem compounded by bingeing and a massive health problem caused by tobacco. It is then suggested that we legalise or decriminalise heroin and cocaine which will undoubtedly increase their use and with it, because of their inherent lethality, the numbers of people experiencing addiction alongside overdoses, heart problems, collapsed veins, blood-borne viruses and a host of other serious health problems will increase substantially, not forgetting a big rise in the numbers of deaths. Sure, there may be a decrease in overall rates of crime through decriminalisation or legalisation (though this is also questionable; a considerable number of people who have been caught using, possessing or dealing in heroin or cocaine, have also been involved in criminal activities prior to or alongside their drug use or dealing and drugs, are just one of a number of activities, albeit probably the most lucrative, that criminal networks are involved with; in other words if drugs became legal they would turn their hand to something else ), but the negative health consequences, spiralling addiction rates and overall impact on society, would more than outweigh any transient benefit from reduced crime added to the already existing problems caused by legal drugs such as alcohol. In nearly 20 years of working in the addictions field in Scotland I have yet to meet anyone who has been able to give me a cogent argument that these would not be the most likely outcomes of abolishing or considerably reducing the drug laws.
So, do the drug laws work, are they effective? The answer is a qualified yes. Apart from their lethal properties they act as a deterrent for whole groups of society to get involved in serious drug use and incur a dependency on them. Take away that deterrent and any criminal sanction pertaining to the use of and dealing in cocaine and heroin and far greater numbers of people will get involved with them. Why not, there would be no risk attached? Sure, most, if not all, of these people will persuade themselves that they’re just ‘dabbling’ or ‘experimenting’ with the drugs. But virtually every single person who ended up addicted thought that initially as well. Hard drug use is, despite the widespread and constant attention focused on it, confined to a small minority. Dismantling the drug laws as they stand risks making hard drug use much more affordable, available and acceptable than it is now and turning a tiny minority into a significant minority.
But this is not unqualified approval. There is probably scope, once more, for reclassifying cannabis to Class ‘C’ or even decriminalising it further as there is still no serious evidence that the drug is lethal and its role as a ‘gateway’ drug to mental health problems or addiction to hard drugs, is highly questionable. And it will be simply impossible to go on banning every single new substance that has been chemically manufactured by simple molecular tweaking, especially when the evidence base against them is anecdotal or sensationalised out of all proportion. Then the credibility of the law does become tarnished and its effectiveness blunted.
But with cocaine and heroin, the current laws are right and our society would be a hell of a lot worse off without them.