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BMJ. 2007 November 10; 335(7627): 966.
PMCID: PMC2072016
Head to Head

Should drugs be decriminalised? Yes

Kailash Chand, general practitioner

Recent government figures suggest that the UK drug treatment programmes have had limited success in rehabilitating drug users, leading to calls for decriminalisation from some parties. Kailash Chand believes that this is the best way to reduce the harm drugs cause, but Joseph Califano thinks not

There is a way that the UK government could more than halve the prison population, prevent burglaries and prostitution, rip the heart out of organised crime, and free up millions of hours of police time. Yet politicians, terrified of the rightwing press, would never dare to suggest the legalisation, regulation, and control of the drugs market, even though it could save lives and bring an end to the needless criminalisation of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Even downgrading cannabis—a tiny step in the right direction—is now being reconsidered.

Prohibition drives crime

Prohibition as a policy has failed. Just look at the US, where hundreds of thousands of people have been jailed and, despite billions of pounds of funding for draconian policies, higher purity drugs continue to flood the market.

Many of the violent criminal gangs owe their existence to the burgeoning, underground drug market. It is they—and not the governments—who control this trade and it is their turf wars that fuel gun crime. Transform—an influential drug policy foundation that has campaigned against prohibition—reports that the annual trade controlled by the gangs is more than £100bn.1 It also points to the fact that the policy drives crime among desperate low income addicts.

You only have to walk through the UK's many red light districts to see the effect of heroin addiction. Young women, putting themselves at grave danger, as they sell their bodies in return for enough cash to fund their next hit. Then there are the prisons overflowing.2

Benefits of decriminalisation

Decriminalising drugs has paid off in the Netherlands. Decriminalisation of heroin and other hard drugs has allowed addicts to be treated as patients. As a result hardly any new heroin addicts are registered,3 while existing users are supported and have been helped to get jobs.

Drugs could easily be regulated in the same manner that alcohol and tobacco are regulated and, more importantly, heavily taxed. The price could still be substantially less than current prices on the illicit market,4 and the revenue generated from the regulation could then be funnelled into education and other rehabilitation programmes. Educating children at an early age is the best weapon we have to combat the drug problems we face today. It would give children the tools to make intelligent and healthy choices in the future. And instead of turning drug addicts back to the streets, investing in rehabilitation programmes would not only help the addicts, but help society.

Many people may think that taking drugs is inherently wrong and so should be illegal. But there is a question of effectiveness—does making it illegal stop people doing it? The answer is clearly no. One could even argue that legalisation would eliminate part of the attraction of taking drugs—the allure of doing something illegal.

Increased harm

The illegal status adds to the dangers of drug taking. Instead of buying a joint from a safe outlet where the toxicity can be monitored and maintained, a young person who wants to smoke cannabis has to take to the streets and buy it from a violent dealer, who suggests that she instead tries ecstasy, crack cocaine, or heroin. Moreover, all that is available (so I am told in many cities) is super strong varieties such as skunk. Purity of cocaine in the UK has fallen steeply as suppliers cut the drugs with other substances.5 And over 70 people in the UK died from a single dose of bacterially infected heroin in 2000.6 Regulation could control the process and greatly reduce the dangers of impure drugs.

Then there is the bloody chain back to the original supplier. Countries like Afghanistan, Columbia, and Jamaica have had their economies rocked and destabilised by the illegal market while bribery, corruption, and conflict have ruled.

In the UK we have cut off huge swathes of the population, branding them criminals and creating an underclass of people who no longer feel part of our society. A sensible policy of regulation and control would reduce burglary, cut gun crime, bring women off the streets, clear out our overflowing prisons, and raise billions in tax revenues. Drug users could buy from places where they could be sure the drugs had not been cut with dangerous, cost saving chemicals. There would be clear information about the risks involved and guidance on how to seek treatment. It is time to allow adults the freedom to make decisions about the harmful substances they consume.

Notes

Competing interests: None declared.

References

2. Transform. Drugs offenders, drugs related offending and the prison population www.tdpf.org.uk/MediaNews_FactResearchGuide_prisons.htm
3. Trimbos Institute. Netherlands national drug monitor. Annual report 2006 www.trimbos.nl/Downloads/Programmaas/NDM/NDM%20Annual%20Report%202006-EN.pdf
4. Transform. After the war on drugs: tools for the debate 2007. www.tdpf.org.uk/Tools_For_The%20Debate.pdf
6. Breakthrough on heroin deaths. BBC News 2000. Jun 15. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/792063.stm

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