Should all drugs be decriminalized? A UK debate

Christopher Russell

In a recent UK parliamentary debate, Bob Ainsworth MP, a former Home Office minister in charge of drugs policy, called for the decriminalization of all drugs. Ainsworth, the most senior UK politician to publicly endorse a system of decriminalization, joins respected figures from the medical and research communities in recent months in suggesting that the decriminalization of drugs would significantly improve public health and reduce crime further than is being achieved under the current system of criminalization. Ainsworth argues that that the past 50 years of the War on Drugs has been counter-productive to its intended goals of reducing the availability of drugs and improving public health. Furthermore, he claims that billions of pounds had been spent without preventing the wide availability of drugs, reducing the wide use of drugs, or weakening the illicit drug market. Consequently, Ainsworth proposes that the drug market be taken out of the hands of organized criminals and be placed into the hands of medical professionals and licensed vendors. Such a change in policy would mark a return to UK drug policy prior to the mid-1960’s in which drug use was treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue.

“It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. This (policy of criminalization) has been going on for 50 years now and it isn’t getting better. The drugs trade is as big, as powerful as it ever was across the world. Prohibition isn’t the answer to this problem” he said.

It is important to understand that Ainsworth is not arguing that drugs like heroin and cocaine should be freely available to buy in the same way that adults can buy alcoholic drinks and tobacco products. Rather, he argues that drugs be decriminalized, which is different from legalized. Decriminalizing would likely mean the government would control all aspects of the manufacture, quality, purity, distribution, and trade of drugs, including who will be licensed to provide drugs. Legalization would mean drugs could be traded in the free market, a position which Ainsworth is explicitly against. “I’m not proposing the liberalization and the legalization of heroin so we can all get zonked out on the street corner” Ainsworth said in an interview with BBC’s Radio 4.

Why decriminalize drugs?

The argument for decriminalization is based on the hypothesis that the legal regulated supply of drugs will draw trade away from the illicit market and so reduce crime related to the illicit sale and purchase of drugs; improve the health of users by providing quality-controlled drugs under the guidance and supervision of licensed individuals; increase the uptake of addiction treatment; allow treatment providers to reconnect with a group of drug users who do not typically seek or know about treatment options or have distanced themselves from treatment providers for fear of criminal prosecution; and improve drug education for current and would-be drug users.

If decriminalizing does shift the drug market toward legal vendors, a major benefit could be the medical and addiction research communities’ sudden widespread access to a population of drug users who are notoriously difficult to reach. This access would allow medical professionals and researchers obtain rich first-hand information as to why these people started using drugs and why they use drugs today, to provide drug education, to provide assistance with any problems relating to employment, housing, relationships or physical and mental health. Decriminalizing drugs may therefore better place treatment providers to support those who want help and to minimise harm in those who continue to use. Paradoxically then, while many people believe decriminalization will send a message to the youth that drug use is acceptable as well as maintaining use in current users, proponents of decriminalization argue that, by reconnecting drug users to the health community, legal regulation of drugs will actually increase in the number of people quitting drugs and provide earlier opportunities to deliver educational interventions to ‘would-be’ drug users.

What might decriminalization look like?

While Ainsworth did not describe in detail how drugs should be regulated, Steve Rolles, Head of Research for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which campaigns for the decriminalization of drugs, released a ‘blueprint for regulation’ in December, 2009 which described how models of regulation for different types of drug would improve health and decrease crime. The report proposes that cannabis and opium could be sold and consumed on membership-based “coffee shop-style” licensed premises and would likely be subjected to similar trade laws as those currently applied to tobacco products; cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines could be sold by licensed pharmacists or named purchasers; and psychedelic drugs, including hallucinogens such as LSD or Salvia could be used only under supervision in licensed “drug clubs” or similar venues. Rolles said: “Drugs are here to stay, so we have a choice – either criminals control them, or governments do. By the cautious implementation of a legally regulated regime, we can control products, prices, vendors, outlets, availability and using environments through a range of regulatory models, depending on the nature of the drug, and evidence of what works”.

Rolles also echoed Ainsworth’s sentiments about the futility and counter-productiveness of prohibition in a recent BBC radio interview: “It hasn’t reduced drug use, it hasn’t prevented the availability of drugs, but it has created a whole raft of secondary problems associated with the illegal market, including making drugs more dangerous than they already are and undermining public health and fuelling crime”.

Rolles called on the UK government to consider evidence about the effectiveness of the prohibition policy both in the UK and other countries and health and crime projections under a decriminalized system. Craig McClure, foreword author on the Transform Drug Policy Foundation report and former executive director of the International Aids Society states that several Latin American governments have already realised how their war on drugs have undermined public health goals and fueled crime and have already moved, or are moving, towards decriminalization and a public health model targeting the prevention and treatment of drug misuse.

What next for the decriminalization deabte?

Knowing that drug decriminalization is a sensitive, emotion-laden, divisive idea, and therefore public support from fellow MPs will initially be largely absent, Ainsworth has called for an impact assessment to be conducted on the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971 – the legislation which introduced drug classification in the UK – rather than calling for drugs to be decriminalized outright.

“I call on those on all sides of the debate to support an independent, evidence-based review, exploring all policy options, including: further resourcing the war on drugs, decriminalizing the possession of drugs, and legally regulating their production and supply” he said. As influential political, medical and scientific forces join to pressure a review of the efficacy of current drug policy, there is a sense in the UK that drug decriminalization is slowly moving from an ideological conviction to an evidence-based alternative to a failing system of prohibition.

Please write your comments about the prospect of drug decriminalization in the box below.

References:

Bob Ainsworth BBC 1 television interview, 16th December, 2010. Accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12005824

Bob Ainsworth BBC Radio 4 interview, 16th December, 2010. Accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12005824

Transform Drug Policy Foundation (2009). After the war on drugs: Blueprint for regulation. Accessible at http://www.tdpf.org.uk/Transform_Drugs_Blueprint.pdf

Medical and political support for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s ‘blueprint for regulation’ (2009) report. Accessible at http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blueprint%20download.htm