Debate: should British drug policy change?

For: James Sewry

Let’s face it, we are never going to live in a world without drugs. No matter how hard the government tries, no matter how stern the penalties, there will always be drugs and people wanting to use them. Current British drug policy does not recognise this blatant fact, and it shows. In fact part of the problem is that politicians view drugs as a moral problem, frequently depicting the ‘war on drugs’ as an attempt to eradicate some kind of evil. But this blinds them to the economic and social benefits of a relaxation of drug laws and makes the task of any sort of reform difficult. That current laws need reform, starting with the legalisation of cannabis, is clear. Just think, for a moment, about the benefits of legalising the casual use of certain low-classification drugs and the creation of a heavily regulated market. First and foremost, it would eradicate the very expensive costs of enforcing drug laws and imprisoning offenders. Police would have greater time to divert resources to more serious crimes, while the burden of prison spaces in Britain’s swollen prisons would be reduced. The government, in controlling and regulating the market, would be able to generate tax revenue and thereby help reduce the budget deficit. In addition, legalisation would reduce the violence that comes with drug-related crime and would help dent the profits currently received by criminal groups. It would mean people could take drugs in a safe environment, sure in the knowledge that the drug they are taking is what the supplier claims it to be. It would also foster a more open, free environment in which to discuss drugs and educate youths about their potential effects.

The experience of the Netherlands and the recent case of Colorado has demonstrated how beneficial the legalisation of certain drugs (in this case cannabis) can be. It brings down murder rates while decreasing the number of arrests for drug-related crime.

Put simply, current British drug policy operates according to a double standard. Why should it be that the use of cannabis is prohibited while the nicotine in cigarettes, arguably a more damaging drug to one’s health, is legal? After all, smoking cannabis causes less long-term harm to others than smoking does. We need to realise that far too much has been spent on a ‘war on drugs’ that is unwinnable. We should instead work to relax current British drug laws, and develop a policy that is at last fit for the twenty-first century.

Against: Rachel Shaw

Compassion. This is the word actor and comedian Russell Brand has been throwing around in recent years when promoting drug reform. He argues that MPs should view taking drugs as a “health issue” and not a “criminal or judicial matter”. Brand says, “We need to change the laws in this country and have a more compassionate, altruistic, loving attitude to the people with the disease of addiction.”

A brief overview of the status quo in the UK: The UK splits drugs into classes A, B and C, with Class A drugs such as crack cocaine holding the most severe penalties. The penalties differ for possession and for supply and production. Possession is the crime that has been most heavily criticized in a letter presented to the Prime Minister signed by more than 90 celebrities, politicians, lawyers and health experts earlier this year. This article will focus on the trending arguments preoccupying the drug debate at large, with a slight cannabis centric focus.

Russell Brand is right; drug abuse is indeed an addiction. Readers are advised to read stories written by drug users and their families documenting the tragic and destructive affects of drug abuse. Who could argue against treating people with love, compassion and respect? But using Brands’ line of argument to propose that drugs should be removed from the criminal justice system simply doesn’t hold ground. Many people who commit crimes (such as theft, identity fraud or abuse) come from vulnerable backgrounds and suffer from a wide range of health issues. But regardless of the cause, there are actions that we have deemed to be harmful for society that can, and must, continue to be regulated.

Campaign group Release argues that if users are not “caught up in the criminal justice system” they have a better chance of escaping addiction. Well, yes, the time and money involved in fighting trials and serving time doesn’t favour battling an addiction problem. Equally, the groups’ letter petitioning to parliament highlights that young people who receive criminal records will have limited employment and educational opportunities. But again, although this makes sense on the surface their arguments don’t get to the crux of the matter. Of course breaking the law makes life difficult for offenders, indeed that’s part of the law’s purpose. But the question at hand is whether drug use, possession or supply should be illegal in the first place.

Is it legitimate to differentiate between alcohol abuse and drug abuse? Does drug abuse still hold a certain stigma, and do we want it to? These are some of the fundamental questions that people should be asking themselves before simply rallying behind universally supported concepts such as love, compassion and support.

In 2011 Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars released a hit single: “So what we get drunk, so what we smoke weed, we’re just having fun, we don’t care who sees”. As teenagers in the USA smoke fewer cigarettes and more cannabis, the question of “caring who sees” has increased relevance. Government reform might be necessary and a particular focus on encouraging post conviction rehabilitation and prevention programmes may be useful. But the arguments most loudly being advocated by the #endthedrugwar campaign remain shallow and weak.

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