Friday, 2 April 2010

Is it time to legalise drugs?

[caption id="attachment_253" align="alignleft" width="226" caption="Mephedrone is set to be replaced by sellers with a more harmful drug - naphyrone"][/caption]

With the government set to make mephedrone illegal in the UK, another drug is already lined up to take its place. Naphyrone is believed to be far more dangerous and damaging than mephedrone, with one seller of legal drugs publicly voicing the dangers of it and refusing to sell it on his website due to his belief that it will "cause long-term brain damage from the first hit" and result in deaths of those taking it. This more dangerous drug, expected to become a replacement to the soon-to-be banned mephedrone, highlights a key problem in our attitude towards drugs. I want to explore the benefits and risks of moving towards the legalisation of drugs within this article. I cannot claim to come to this article with an fully unbiased attitude, as I lean towards a more liberal policy towards drugs, so I will be setting out my points for legalisation of drugs, but also making counter-points to them.

We have a natural aversion to illegal drugs - we don't take them, and we recognise the dangers of them, but is banning really the best way to deal with them? The first thing we ought to consider is whether it is the role of government to protect people from themselves, as Ron Paul, committed American libertarian politician, once put  it "... rather than saying some monolithic government is gonna make you take care of yourself and be a better person. It's a preposterous notion and never works - never will... why don't they put you on a diet? You're a little overweight." Aside from angrily telling off Tubby Tubster, Paul raises the issue of to what extent we want the government to exercise control over us. I think most people would agree that they don't want the government interfering directly in their lives, but a good argument for trying to prevent drug use is the damage it can cause to others. Someone  suffering from withdrawal and seeking a fix or under the influence of one of the more virulent drugs is more likely to behave irrationally, perhaps most notably with regard to driving. If someone is unable to concentrate properly on the road, we could see accidents stemming from drugs, as we do currently with drink-drivers. I think most of us can agree that trying to prevent injuries and deaths of others is a noble cause for a government to take up. Furthermore, if you are someone who does believe in the government protecting people from themselves, you could raise the point about keeping the potentially weak-willed away from drugs, so they do not end up becoming addicted and dependent upon them. Something strikes me as being fundamentally wrong in people being punished for choosing to take drugs - if they are not selling it to others, I see little reason that they ought to be punished. However, a reason to support intervention would be the negative effect that drugs can have on society as a whole and other people, which I will discuss later in this article.

However, both of these introductory reasons for waging a war against drugs are flawed. They're flawed because the war isn't working. Drugs are pretty easily available if you know where to find them - I don't know if any of you saw Tower Block of Commons on Channel 4, but some of the roads surrounding the council estate that that Austin Mitchell was staying on had needles strewn at the side of the road and on pavements; it's very clear that in some areas, drugs are readily and easily available, no matter what statistics the government touts. We can never completely eradicate drugs from this country unless we thoroughly examine every import into the country, and then there would still be the problem of people making them in the country. There will always be people who want to take drugs and they're going to get hold of them somehow - perhaps legalising them could help us to better protect the public at large whilst reducing the cost that drugs cause.

A key reason for my belief in the legalisation of drugs is the amount of crime caused and stemming from them. Firstly, we have addicts being sentenced to prison sentences, and they then take up space and cost money that could be used on criminals that deserve to be there more. We're also faced with prison overcrowding - which has led the government to adopt its early release scheme - overcrowding is due in part to those sentenced for either using or dealing drugs. If we can take the lucrative business of selling drugs away from dealers by allowing drugs to be sold legally in chemists and other approved outlets, we could eradicate the shady underground drugs trade, which causes crime, draws more crime, and can cause addicts to commit crime to feed their habit to meet the costs of buying their drug. However, the problem with this stance is that, even if legalised, there would still be a cost of drugs. If addicts have the money for their fix, they are still likely to turn to crime for money. On a more positive note, the government would be able to keep an eye on and tax the drugs trade in the same way it does for alcohol and tobacco. Whilst government taxes on drugs would hardly get anyone excited, considering that we have approaching cutbacks and an era of thrift, an additional splurge of  money for the government from this source of income could help to reduce the inevitable tax rises in other areas - such as the predicted hike in VAT to 20%.

Selling drugs through legitimate outlets would also enable the trade to be regulated. There could be restrictions placed upon the content of substances; currently, unscrupulous dealers bulk out their products or make them look more appealing with all manner of things, including rat poison and  glass, which makes them more harmful to users. If  sold properly, it can be ensured that drugs are safe for human consumption, which can help to reduce the health risks associated with them. In addition, they could also be packaged with warnings and dosage amounts to advise buyers - that second point is very wishy-washy, but if dosage instructions and warnings help to reduce the risk of taking the drugs, it would be worth it. Those selling the drugs could also be trained so they are able to offer advice and help to those who are willing to take it - if the buyer wants to get off of drugs, they could seek help from their pharmacist or provider, which is obviously a service a street dealer would never provide. This combination of purity of the substance, warnings and information, and expert advice and help would make sure that the drugs are as safe for human consumption as possible. Of course, prices would have to be set low in order to prevent dealers undercutting the market value of the drugs - a problem with this is that legitimate sellers may be unable to make a profit on them, and may therefore opt not to sell them, in which case we'd still end up with money rolling in for illegal dealers on the street.

As I said earlier in the article, I think we ought to assess the impact of drugs on society. At a personal level, drugs can completely change a person, and making drugs readily available in shops could risk exposing them to people who would not normally come into contact with them, thereby damaging someone who would otherwise have remained away from damaging substances. If someone is going through a difficult time or is emotionally unstable, they may turn to or be offered drugs by a friend. If legalised, there would be a removal of the fear of getting caught and a lessened stigma attached to drug use, which could make people more willing to try them, and by doing so they may become dependent upon them. In addition, I believe that a growing number of people taking drugs could have negative impacts upon society in these areas:

1. The NHS
We've seen with alcohol, particularly among teenagers who don't know when to stop, the pressure and waste that drugs can cause in hospitals. On Friday nights, A&E wards become full of prats in a drunken stupor who have either passed out or  injured themselves - probably by wearing those dopey high heels. Some drugs can have a similar uninhibiting effect on users, which could result in valuable space and resources that are needed for those who have become ill or injured without having caused it themselves, being swallowed up by addicts. (Forgive the pun.) A greater number of drug addicts would also drain money from the NHS - both in terms of providing beds, care, and staff, but also in the necessary increases in funding for rehabilitation services. It's natural that those who aren't addicts would despise the strain that drug users would put on the NHS, and the solution to this would be to charge those who have injured or made themselves ill as a result of drugs. However, as a friend of mine said when a topic similar to this arose in discussion (I have nothing better to talk about), we could end up sliding down a very slippery slope which could ultimately lead to the National Health Service not being free at the source - if we begin to charge people for care resulting from injuries or illness that was their fault, where do we draw the line?

2. The Economy
If the number of addicts grows, the number of people unemployed is likely to rise too. Aside from those who are able to control their use of drugs and take them only occasionally, it is likely that those who need to get their fix and can think of little else until they have it, will lose their job. In addition to this, there is the risk of an employer sacking an employee who is found to use drugs because they do not want them associated with their company or are concerned at a decrease in productivity.

3. The Welfare State
Therefore, if people are losing their jobs, they will become dependent upon benefits, which will further increase the cost to the taxpayer of providing for the unemployed. If the state refuses to provide assistance to these people, or places conditions on helping them that some addicts do not wish to meet - such as attending rehabilitation - we could end up with addicts losing their utilities and eventually their home as a result of not being able to afford to pay the bills, mortgage, and other expenses.

[caption id="attachment_264" align="alignleft" width="266" caption="Physical harm and dependence upon drugs - created from 'Drug classification: making a hash of it?' by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee"][/caption]

The graph on the left - click it to see larger - shows the rankings of drugs in terms of physical harm caused to users, and dependence upon the drug. It is based partly the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's report 'Drugs classification: making a hash of it?, as well as other sources.' Note that tobacco and alcohol are placed around the middle of the physical harm axis, and are quite high on the dependence axis. These two legal drugs are rated by the findings used as being more harmful and more addictive than a plethora of illegal drugs. However, it is worthy of note that the graph does not include mental harm to the user, which some claim, particularly with cannabis, can put the user at higher risk of mental illness, though the link there is somewhat spurious. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that there was little evidence of a link between cannabis and mental illness - but that didn't stop Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, from putting it back up to Class B.

A reason for Professor David Nutt being sacked from his role as a government drugs advisor was his comments about alcohol and tobacco being more harmful than cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy. This and the chart above raise an important point - why are alcohol and tobacco legal, whilst other drugs aren't? There are perhaps two main factors here - one being that no government would wish to ban them as they would face a mass revolt, and secondly that they know it wouldn't work. Prohibition of alcohol in the USA during the 1920s was largely a failure - people kept consuming it and there were few consequences for doing so since the government wasn't willing to pour in resources to try to combat it when there were more important crimes to focus on.

Perhaps it is time we recognised that our attempts to prohibit drugs has failed; people still take them, and they always will. It's time that governments began to acknowledge that the cycle of banning drugs simply doesn't work - banning mephedrone will simply put it into the hands of shady drug dealers and gangs, and will not help improve the situation at all. It's time for a new outlook. I'm not saying this should involve jumping head-first into full legalisation, but looking honestly and fairly at different options and opinions is vital if we are to tackle the issue and decide what we wish to do about it.  Brushing aside people like Nutt simply because they hold a different view to the government  is not helpful to anyone.

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