Drug Decriminalisation: a Good Idea, but not Enough

The big story today is the UK Drug Policy Commission report calling for the decriminalisation of small amounts of cannabis and, later, other drugs. The full report, which you can read here, talks about “supporting responsible behaviour”, and “promoting recovery from drug dependence”, and working with local communities and drug users to “take a problem solving approach”.

Which is great. That is definitely so, so much better an idea than the £3 billion we spend every year on prosecuting the drug war. But the number of organisations saying nice things like this is growing by the day. Simply decriminalising users  will not have much effect on the £13 billion lost through drug-related crime each year. And look at the harms table they list!

How many of these harms will be done away with simply by fining drug users instead of jailing them? If we agree that criminalising drug users is a bad idea, why should we civilise (?) them instead?

Nonetheless, I think this report really adds something to the debate. It’s definitely one of the first I’ve seen that says we need to face up to the face that many people use drugs for sane, rational reasons:

[W]e have to recognise that, for many users, drugs bring something to their lives that they value, be it pleasure, relief from pain, enhanced perceptions or performance. This perspective challenges the prevailing wisdom that all drugs are inherently ‘bad’ if used for non-medically authorised purposes.

If the government were to simply admit that actually, nice people take drugs, I imagine a tsunami in drug policy would ensue.

To my mind, though, arguing for decriminalisation in today’s hurrah-for-Uruguay climate is liking arguing for civil unions for gay people. It made sense when we were first talking about gay rights. But with so many nations with full same-sex marriage, and many who originally brought in civil unions “upgrading”, many LGBT activists views them as so 2008. Civil unions are now just a sop. So it is with decriminalisation.

The UKDPC admit that the case for regulation is already being made by others, but states that the evidence is lacking for its efficacy:

We appreciate that some will argue that the risks of the commercialisation of controlled drugs could be contained with careful regulation and that our position does nothing to deal with the negative consequences of the current system in places such as South or Central America, Central and South-East Asia or increasingly parts of Africa. It also would not address existing problems with drug contamination and unpredictable dosage levels. But our assessment is that such a change could lead to some hugely negative unintended consequences, and
should be treated with caution.

 

It is mildly disappointing that a commission which makes such points as

…there can be no serious challenge to the fact that we have inconsistent control and regulatory frameworks governing the availability of different psychoactive substances. The separation between these drugs and the illicit ones is entirely artificial and historical. In a world where policy could be made without reference to current behaviour and past decisions, that separation would probably not exist.

can then go on to deny that leaving that framework in place poses a major obstacle to effective regulation of drugs, “soft” or otherwise.

But it is true that we don’t yet know concretely what effect the legalisation of drugs would really have on states. It is this which makes the fact that Washington, Colorado and Oregon are holding referenda on the outright legalisation of cannabis after successful experiments with medical marijuana, which stand a reasonable chance of winning, so exciting. Because maybe if one area, somewhere, will just take that step, and prove that the world won’t end, we can stop discussing “minimal civil penalties” and “drug treatment referral panels”, and start talking serious drug law reform.

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