There is a growing impetus to reform and liberalise the UK and international drug laws; these being widely regarded as ineffectual in terms of combating drug use. Those arguing for reform make several points.
The first is that the existing drug laws are grossly hypocritical in that tobacco which kills a minimum of a quarter-of-a-million people per year, and alcohol which causes widespread misery and harm in our communities, are freely available. Alcohol does cause immense problems and a significant minority of people who use it become dependent on it, with dreadful consequences. However, throughout the long history of its use, the vast majority of people using alcohol have encountered no problems with it. This cannot be said for some substances such as heroin which, throughout its relatively short history by comparison has caused serious problems, including death, for the vast majority of people who have used it for non-medical purposes. As for tobacco it was only from the mid twentieth century that it was discovered to be such a dangerous drug and measures adopted against it.
The second point put forward by pro-reform advocates or those wishing to legalise drugs is that the serious problems caused by heroin and, to a certain extent, cocaine are not intrinsic to these 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; 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 heroin and cocaine are very powerful drugs and the risks attached to them: overdose, heart problems, collapsed veins, blood-borne viruses and a host of other serious health problems are likely to continue even if they were sound quality control procedures in place.
It is also very 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. If the number of people who use the former were to increase to that of the latter it is very possible that there would be a substantial rise in the numbers of people overdosing or coming into harm through using them, precisely because of their inherent lethality.
The third and most consistent argument put forward for decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs is that it would lead to a decrease in overall rates of crime and lawlessness. This is an assumption however based on the contention that the illicit drug market would effectively disappear with some form of decriminalisation or controlled regulation. It takes no account of the ‘gray’ market that already exists with controlled substances such as methadone or diazepam (valium) at street level, or the widespread black market in tobacco or, to a lesser extent alcohol, which would likely to continue with drugs such as heroin. It also assumes a one-to-one correlation between crime and drug use.
The fact is that a large 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. Moreover, drugs, are just one of a number of activities, albeit currently the most lucrative, that criminal networks are involved with; in other words if drugs became legal these networks would turn their hand to something else. Despite this, even if crime rates were to reduce, the negative health consequences, spiralling addiction rates and overall impact on society resulting from legalising or decriminalising heroin and cocaine, would more than outweigh any transient benefit from reduced crime, alongside the already existing problems caused by alcohol, including binge drinking, and tobacco use.
People involved in the drug trade, whether by dealing or using or both are unlikely to be deterred by the drug laws and drug patterns and trends are largely influenced by factors that are most likely outwith the control of individual governments, politicians and laws. But the drug laws relating to ‘hard’ drugs, especially heroin, probably do act as a deterrent for whole groups in society not 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 such drugs as heroin and far greater numbers of people will get involved with them. Hard drug use is, despite the widespread and constant attention focused on it, confined to a small minority. Dismantling the drug laws whole-scale 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 of the current drug laws. 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. As for legal highs, 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. But with cocaine and heroin, the current laws are about right and our society would be a hell of a lot worse off without them.