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.


Bob Ainsworth BBC 1 television interview, 16th December, 2010. Accessible at

Bob Ainsworth BBC Radio 4 interview, 16th December, 2010. Accessible at

Transform Drug Policy Foundation (2009). After the war on drugs: Blueprint for regulation. Accessible at

Medical and political support for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s ‘blueprint for regulation’ (2009) report. Accessible at

21 responses to “Should all drugs be decriminalized? A UK debate”

  1. 1. Decriminalization will greatly reduce cost to users and hopefully reduce crimes/unhealthy means require to support such habits.
    2. It will reduce monetary gains to organized criminals which will directly/indirectly reduce their power.
    3. Profits can be channeled for good instead of going to organized criminals
    4. Drug quality controls will reduce health issue/deaths caused by unscrupulous suppliers.

  2. Portugal decriminalised in 2001, benefits include:

    – Had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU.
    – drug-related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically
    – Increase in uptake and integration into addiction support/health services

    It concludes with “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.”

    Yet our politicians aren’t even prepared to talk about it, instead saying the “don’t believe” it is the right approach. We NEED an impact assessment into our current policy, and one that actually looks at all three options – prohibition, decriminalisation and legalisation (with regulation) in a rational and unbiased way.

    • Jake, the only problem is that Portugal already had some of the lowest substance abuse rates before the decriminalization efforts. When it comes to all your other points, I agree that the U.S. will see great benefit. The question is what the effect on increasing drug use will be in this country and what (or who) will pay to counter those public health outcomes?
      There are some suggestions that like with cigarettes, drug companies would have to bear the cost… BTW, how come alcohol producers don’t have to do this???

      • Adi, yes they did have lower rates before but they were starting to have very serious Heroin problems. I believe they commissioned a review (correct me if I’m wrong) and decrim was the suggested solution… the politicians then accepted the evidence and bravely gave it a go, with numerous benefits.

        The problem here is that our politicians won’t even let a proper and independent impact assessment happen. They don’t even want the suggestion that decriminalisation or legalisation (with regulation) ‘could’ be better. It is hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

        With regards to health problems, drug use and possible abuse has always been a health problem (drugs don’t create addicts, but poverty and mental health do) rather than a criminal justice problem. With proper regulation i.e. restrictions on age, pricing, education, time and location of sales, health consequences can be minimised with clean and sensible drug taking. Instead, some in the government think that snorting Cocaine laced with carcinogens is a sign of success .

        Drugs will always have the potential to cause harm, and use does not constitute either abuse or damage to the individual alone – many people smoke cannabis or drink sensibly well into their later years without becoming addicted or having severe health consequences. So the real question is, do we want to allow people to have the freedom to do what they want with their own bodies, and regulate it in such a way that it is as safe as possible, or continue criminalising millions of people, packing our prisons and causing those that use ‘not alcohol/tobacco’, to use the most dangerous form of their chosen drug?

        Lastly, many politicians have their fingers in alcohol industries pies – why do you think massive deregulation has gone on whilst calls from health officials and police for minimum unit pricing are ignored…

      • I forgot to add, that tax revenue from the legal sale of said drugs would pay for the associated health costs, in addition to billions of pounds of saving from reduced law enforcement, criminal justice and prison costs which could be funnelled back into better treatment and education. Please see for a sensible approach to legal regulation.

      • I’m with you Jake, and as soon as I get a loud enough voice (outside of this forum, which although read by thousands per month is a drop in the proverbial bucket) I am going to do my best to push for the decriminalization of drug use in the U.S. myself. There’s little doubt that the politicians aren’t happy to touch that topic, but that is due mostly to their constituents who need to be educated before they’ll even think of supporting something like this. That’s when there might be a chance to bring this up.
        It is our Job (I’m including Chris and many others in this) to have an informed discussion that presents ALL sides and comes to a sensible compromise, which will no doubt have to include a comprehensive assessment of the current problem as well as a study of possible outcomes with a legislative agenda that will likely roll of incremental changes. I will certainly look at the blueprint (glad someone else worked on that so I don’t have to do the initial leg work) and provide thoughts and comments.
        Don’t forget that one of the special interest groups, at least in the United States, is specifically the union groups who represent officers and prisons and who are not at all interested in having less work for their members. And of course they get to use that stupid but catchy slogan of being “tough on crime.”

      • Adi, one of the best ways of stirring debate for the whole issue in the states is via the legalisation of Cannabis, just look how much Prop 19 in California legitimised the debate with calls from the ACLU and organisations such as LEAP. If the country that started this whole war on drugs actually legalises its enemy no.1 the whole house of cards could start to come down and proper debate could be had.

        Regarding the prison industrial complex, as it is worse in the states than here, isn’t it just sickening to see, so blatantly, profits being put ahead of human life! Although notice they were unusually quiet in regards to Prop 19…

      • As to point #2 yes and as to point #1, I think that this is where the different options and ways of decriminalization versus legalization are important. I’m not so sure that outright legalization of marijuana is the best 1st step.

  3. Jake, I agree with most of what you’ve said, particularly that a decade of evidence from Portugal suggesting the health and criminal justice benefits of decriminalization over criminalisation should, in light of the UK’s drug-related problems, warrant an impact assessment of current UK policy and evidence-based projections for a policy of decriminalization.

    Dr Jaffe, yes Portugal did have one of the lowest rates of illict drug use in Europe prior to 2001 but, by 1999, Portugal also had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS in the European Union and second highest rate of HIV among injecting drug users, while drug-related deaths peaked at 369 in 1999 (a 57% increase from 1997). Rates of Tuberculosis, Hep B, Hep C, and drug-related deaths also peaked in Portugal in 1999. After 9 years of decriminalization, rates of these infectious diseases have significantly reduced to levels among the lowest in Europe. Problematic drug use also decreased between 2000 and 2005 from 7.6 to 6.8 per 1000 aged 15-64, and prevalence of injecting drug use decreased from 3.5 to 2 per 1000 population aged 15-64 (which was statistically significant). This significant decreasing trend is made all the more notable by the fact that the number of problematic drug users in neighbouring Italy, which criminalizes drug use, increased during this period.

    Of course, there were some unwanted effects of decriminalization too, e.g. increases in lifetime and last year illicit drug use for nearly all drugs between 2001 and 2007, a trend comparable to neighbouring Spain which still crimilaizes illicit drug use.

    Overall, the consensus from stakeholders and commentators on Portugal’s decade of decriminalization appears to be that strict regulation of drug use has better served health and criminal justice targets than a policy of criminalization had achieved up till 2001. Of course, prevalence data must be interpreted with caution; it is still early days for Portugal and some trends are still moving in the opposite directions to those which were hoped for. Nonetheless, early indications of decreasing trends for drug-related disease and death among others in decriminalized Portugal should suffice to make health ministers around Europe and the US further investigate decriminalization as a credible, viable alternative strategy to the War on Drugs.

    • Christopher, could I enquire what trends are moving in the opposite directions to hoped? But yes you are right, it is more than enough to begin a rational and evidence-based debate!

      • Sure Jake. According to Balsa et al (2004, 2006), prevalence of any illicit substance use in Portugal between 2001 (beginning of decriminalisation) and 2007 rose from 7.6 per 1000 population aged 15-64 to 12 per 1000 population aged 15-64 (increase of 4.4). In order of greatest increase to smallest increase, prevalence of lifetime use and past 12 months use of Hashish, cocaine, Ecstasy, amphetamines, and heroin increased between 2001 and 2007. However, Italy and Spain (both under criminalzation policies) saw similar increases during this time, suggesting these increases were not largely attributable to Portugal’s policy change.

        I think the decriminalization debate will always come to “we must think about the children”. So to this concern, contrary to the fear that decriminalizing drugs would send the message to the youth that drug use is acceptable, drug use among 15-16 year olds actually significantly decreased between 2003 and 2007. Again, however, that similar decreases were observed in Spain and Italy suggests a regional trend and not a large effect of decriminalization. The point here is that decriminalising drugs at thsi time did not produce the rise in youth drug use many had expected.

        The strongest evidence of the efficacy of decriminalization comes from the finding that Portugal was the only of these three countries to show a decrease in the number of problematic drug users (Spain and Itlay both increased). Thus, in support of the idea that a penal, justice-driven system drives the drug trade underground and alienates drug users from seeking help, decriminalization in Portugal appeared to be most beneficial to problem drug users. This is the statistic which should bring people to the table to discuss how decriminalization might allow health care workers to better engage with the most at-risk drug user who has till now been largely disconnected with the health care system.

        In support of this, when drug possession and acquisition became a public order or administrative offence back in 2001, specially devised Commissions for the Dissuation of Drug Addiction (CDTs) (typically comprising three people made up of lawyers, medical professionals, and social worker) were charged with discussing with the offender the reasons for their offence and what course of action the offender would most benefit from (community service, fine, curfews etc). The primary goal, however, is to dissuade drug use and when deemed appropriate, to help find the offender a suitable treatment option. Thus, data show a significant number of referrals by CDTs for heroin users to treatment. Coupled with the significant decrease in number of intravenous drug users between 2000 and 2005 from 3.5 to 2 per 1000 population aged 15-64, we may infer that treating drug use as a health problem rather than a criminal problem has greatly benefited problem drug users in Portugal.

        Does this info help, Jake?

        ps the Balsa et al (2004, 2006) reports are in Portuguese but luckily enough I speak Portuguese.

      • Thanks Christopher, much appreciated! Not speaking Portuguese hasn’t helped! Regarding those trends, it is encouraging to see reductions in use in the lower ages, and when it comes to ‘think of the children’, it should be remembered that dealers don’t ask for ID, or let you know if they have cut the drugs with something to increase their profits at the expense of your health.

        Lastly, I mentioned it in a previous post, but drug use isn’t inherently bad. Humans have enjoyed taking drugs for relaxation, enlightenment, coming-of-age ceremonies and to enhance social situations since before civilisation began – it is a part of us (and one of the reasons it won’t ever go away). An increase in use shouldn’t always be viewed as a negative thing, especially if it is safe, clean and controlled (i.e. in a regulated market we could theoretically have increased use but reduced rates of disease, overdose and addiction). The current system promotes the extremes of addiction and everything negative associated with drug use, whilst blaming the user and not their circumstances that led them to that place. The debate we crave is sorely needed as the current policy is ultimately unsustainable.

  4. @Adi (won’t let me reply to our thread for some reason). I agree that there are many different options and methods to get the debate going. However, after 40-70 years of propaganda and oppression it is not just as easy as saying lets all acknowledge the evidence and have a review.. that means politicians admitting fault, and how often does that happen! Google teh Shafer commission ( to see just how much the politicians value evidence over ideology (some particularly disgusting remarks from Nixon, which I will not repeat That is why voter initiatives in the states have the potential to show politicians where the public is at with opinion. All too often our ‘leaders’ are not leaders, but just followers maintaining the status-quo to ensure job security/vested interests. Legalisation of Cannabis will prompt worldwide debate, especially in Latin America. Latin America is the other hope of getting the debate started as they are getting weary of the huge costs, both financial and human, involved in maintaining the West’s desire for a “drug free world”, if a consortium challenged the UN Narcotic conventions it would move the debate along hugely. So yes, there are many options, but if we actually want progress we may have to start it ourselves 🙂

  5. I’m tired of the majority of politicians ignoring all the evidence that demonstrates that current drug policy is unsustainable and a failure.

    It’s as if being a politician gives you a direct line to some sort of information about illegal drugs that is inacessible to everyone else.

    I am an opiate addict (currently not active), I wish i had never taken opiates because they make me feel so good, as good as I will ever feel. However, that feeling comes at a great price , a price set largely by the criminalization of drugs.

    Instead of money being spent on fighting the production, transport and selling of drugs, we should be thinking about legalizing all drugs and using the money saved (and earned through tax revenue) on creating a generation that comes from loving homes (be they traditional, one-parent etc.)have good educations (and by this I don’t mean good exam results I mean knowing and loving the world they live in)and a sense of belongingness.

    And if all this happened then there would still be people using drugs but there would be no addicts. But then this would require a complete paradigm shift and that just ‘aint going to happen.

    No wonder I took drugs.

  6. While bullets fly into El Paso, bodies pile up in the streets of Juarez, and thugs with gold-plated AK-47s and albino tiger pens are beheading federal officials and dissolving their torsos in vats of acid, here are some facts concerning the peaceful situation in Holland. –Please save a copy and use it as a reference when debating prohibitionists who claim the exact opposite concerning reality as presented here below:

    Cannabis-coffee-shops are not only restricted to the Capital of Holland, Amsterdam. They can be found in more than 50 cities and towns across the country. At present, only the retail sale of five grams is tolerated, so production remains criminalized. The mayors of a majority of the cities with coffeeshops have long urged the national government to also decriminalize the supply side.

    A poll taken earlier this year indicated that some 50% of the Dutch population thinks cannabis should be fully legalized while only 25% wanted a complete ban. Even though 62% of the voters said they had never taken cannabis. An earlier poll also indicated 80% opposing coffee shop closures.

    It is true that the number of coffee shops has fallen from its peak of around 2,500 throughout the country to around 700 now. The problems, if any, concern mostly marijuana-tourists and are largely confined to cities and small towns near the borders with Germany and Belgium. These problems, mostly involve traffic jams, and are the result of cannabis prohibition in neighboring countries. Public nuisance problems with the coffee shops are minimal when compared with bars, as is demonstrated by the rarity of calls for the police for problems at coffee shops.

    While it is true that lifetime and past-month use rates did increase back in the seventies and eighties, the critics shamefully fail to report that there were comparable and larger increases in cannabis use in most, if not all, neighboring countries which continued complete prohibition.

    According to the World Health Organization only 19.8 percent of the Dutch have used marijuana, less than half the U.S. figure.
    In Holland 9.7% of young adults (aged 15 to 24) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level in Italy (10.9%) and Germany (9.9%) and less than in the UK (15.8%) and Spain (16.4%). Few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.44%), well below the average (0.52%) of the compared countries.

    The WHO survey of 17 countries finds that the United States has the highest usage rates for nearly all illegal substances.

    In the U.S. 42.4 percent admitted having used marijuana. The only other nation that came close was New Zealand, another bastion of get-tough policies, at 41.9 percent. No one else was even close. The results for cocaine use were similar, with the U.S. again leading the world by a large margin.

    Even more striking is what the researchers found when they asked young adults when they had started using marijuana. Again, the U.S. led the world, with 20.2 percent trying marijuana by age 15. No other country was even close, and in Holland, just 7 percent used marijuana by 15 — roughly one-third of the U.S. figure.

    In 1998, the US Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey claimed that the U.S. had less than half the murder rate of the Netherlands. That’s drugs, he explained. The Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics immediately issued a special press release explaining that the actual Dutch murder rate is 1.8 per 100,000 people, or less than one-quarter the U.S. murder rate.

    Here is a very recent article by a psychiatrist from Amsterdam, exposing Drug Czar misinformation

    Now let’s look at a comparative analysis of the levels of cannabis use in two cities: Amsterdam and San Francisco, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health May 2004,

    The San Francisco prevalence survey showed that 39.2% of the population had used cannabis. This is 3 times the prevalence found in the Amsterdam sample

    Source: Craig Reinarman, Peter D.A. Cohen and Hendrien L. Kaal, The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy

    Moreover, 51% of people who had smoked cannabis in San Francisco reported that they were offered heroin, cocaine or amphetamine the last time they purchased cannabis. In contrast, only 15% of Amsterdam residents who had ingested marijuana reported the same conditions. Prohibition is the ‘Gateway Policy’ that forces cannabis seekers to buy from criminals who gladly expose them to harder drugs.

    The indicators of death, disease and corruption are even much better in the Netherlands than in Sweden for instance, a country praised by UNODC for its so called successful drug policy.

    Here’s Antonio Maria Costa doing his level best to avoid discussing the success of Dutch drug policy:

    The Netherlands also provides heroin on prescription under tight regulation to about 1500 long-term heroin addicts for whom methadone maintenance treatment has failed.

    The Dutch justice ministry announced, last year, the closure of eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs in the prison system. A decline in crime has left many cells empty. There’s simply not enough criminals

    For further information, kindly check out this very informative FAQ provided by Radio Netherlands:
    or go to this page:

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment malcolm and I support far more in your arguent than you may think (or maybe you already knew that?). With the special interests surrounding the U.S. prison system along with our prohibitive general moral stance, I think it’s going to take a long time to change the overall outlook in the U.S.
      Nevertheless, I can say that having been involved in the criminal element surrounding drug use here, movement has to occur on multiple fronts to create change. There is simply too much money in this business for the groups who control the drug trade to go away quietly, and so in essence, the fear they stir up serves them as much as it serves the officer’s unions.
      BTW, your information points to the fact that outright legalization might not be necessary, especially if simple decriminalization of use achives such great results in terms of lowering crime without affecting use prevalence. What would be the benefit of fully legalizing marijuana production in the Netherlands for instance if all indicators seem to point towards a well functioning system now?

  7. What a great debate and insight on this post. A while back I came across a story on Portugal and how they decriminalized all drugs. I am very curious to see the long term effects of drug use in Portugal. I can imagine how decriminalizing drugs would help the economy and potentially save the government a lot of money by not having to arrest, prosecute and imprison people for drug crimes; plus the potential tax revenue. But will it lead to lower drug use? Time will tell I guess.

  8. While the argument for decriminalising drugs and putting in place models for supply and use is appealing to perhaps some users and non-users. My experience of working with drug users, over twenty four years, is not about legal or illegal activity it is in part about being NON COMPLIANT with-in the community, many other aspects of the users also can not be ignored. Let us reflect on the problems that alchol has and is causing to the UK and the increase in health damage as reported by the NHS; much of this damage can be atributed to the ease of availability. The argument for the relaxation of licencing laws was forcibly made with out due attention to the warning of the consequences. As much as the definition of decriminalisation and legality of drug availability and use is described, there will be misunderstanding. Let us just remember, how recently, the reclasification of cannibis led to confusion by users and the public at large. Why is Holland reviewing its attitude to it’s Cafe model, because it is working? NO because it is causing problems in health and illegal activity. Let us not move too quickly as we can make a bad situation worse. We as a community have made alcohol too atractive, having doubled the number of people admitted to hospital in the last seven years, have not deterred cigarette smoking too successfully despite heavy health warning campaigns and increases in taxes; so what makes us belief we can improve the problems caused by the illegal drugs, of which too few people who are not problematic users have little comprehensive knowledge?

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