The legalisation of drugs worldwide

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The British media in the past year or so has seen a fixation with ‘legal highs’, and more specifically, why they are still legal when we know they can cause harm. One could be forgiven for believing that when a drug is legal, we are all in danger from falling victim to its irresistible charm, and that soon it will be replacing Relentless as the youth’s pick-up of choice.

Yet what about countries where other drugs are legal? Marijuana for instance.

In Britain, this drug was upped from a Class C to Class B drug, deemed to carry ‘moderate risk’ to users. However, this was not always the case. Hemp has been with us throughout history, first found as a remnant of the Romans in the early part of the first millennium, and grown freely throughout Britain for clothes, tools and recreational use. It is only in recent years we have seen a clamp-down, with more arrests for drug-use than ever before. Such emphasis by the Police on minor offences, like the possession of marijuana, has raised calls for its legalisation.

Is something as attractive if there are no repercussions for its use?

A key argument for the decriminalisation of drugs has long been that it would lower crime rates. Well, that’s hardly a surprise. I mean, really, lowering the number of crimes that can be committed in the country would mean a lower amount of crime? Genius. However, history shows that aside from the obvious, criminalisation can have unintended consequences on the usage of narcotics.

Changes in law around the world from time to time can throw up the ironic. It wasn’t until cannabis was made illegal that Britain saw the influx of other, stronger forms, and the move towards imported hashish as an alternative. The outlawing of coca leaves as a medicine led to the social use of their powdered form, cocaine, and the closure of the opium dens of Europe created a subclass injecting its impure and addictive counterpart.

Prohibition_WeWantBeerWhat history fails in providing many instances of is which habits prevail when narcotics are decriminalised. In America, the prohibition era of the early 20th century, with its wild cabaret and dancing girls, a propensity for spirit-drinking, gambling and impropriety, gave way to the relatively more serene drinking culture of bars and restaurants we know today. In the same manner, when only a select few in Britain had the right to vote, there was an almost unanimous call for change and uproar at this injustice. Less than a century later, voting in the U.K. is at an all-time low. And why? There is no thrill, no moral righteousness. Is something as attractive if there are no repercussions for its use?

The Government of Portugal certainly wouldn’t think so. In 2001, the nation became the first in Europe to completely legalise all drugs, and drug related activities, such as possession and transportation. The principle at work here is that if drugs are widely and freely available, the illnesses and problems that accompany them will be able to be monitored in the public sphere, rather than these issues being buried in a seedy underworld of dirty needles and dodgy coke. In the late 1990s, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV in injecting users in the European Union, with the rates of infected heroin users matching those even in the worst areas of New York at the time.

Supplying users with clean equipment, and treating their addiction as a physical illness in requirement of state-funded treatment, have had dramatic effects on the latest statistics. Figures show the rates of HIV positive injecting users have fallen by more than a third in ten years, and a drop in use overall thanks to the rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, it is not just the higher-risk drugs that have seen their usage change. The amount of under 16-year-olds engaging in drug-use has significantly decreased, and the street value of drugs has fallen.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Portugal provides a role-model state, where acceptance of drugs has shone a path towards removing it as a social problem. Yet by taking an exit from this sun-lit highway view, and removing our rose-tinted spectacles, the saddening long-term effects of Portugal’s drug policy lie just on the horizon. The Government surveys show a greater number of individuals are now reliant on the treatment and drugs they receive, many deemed so for life. Such a great economic toll lays heavy on the heads of a country hit badly from the last decade of recession. And even the success rates are not conclusive. Although the rates of HIV and deaths by drug-use have fallen, Portugal still heads the list in these areas.

marijuana_legal_gavelSo maybe the problem lies away from legalising all drugs to creating boundaries of drug use. The petition to legalise marijuana in the United States has attracted worldwide media coverage, and some success. For instance, the state of Washington allows the plant to be grown, transported and used legally, providing the user is over the age of 21 years and has medical advice to do so. Yet in contrast, states such as Colorado now allow complete freedom to cultivate marijuana, with the only stipulation being a maximum of 6 plants per individual. Sellers have to apply for a licence, but once obtained they are free to trade as they please without the authority’s permission.

As expected, there is less drug crime in states where marijuana is legal. But as stated earlier in the article, this could not be more irrelevant. What does matter is that in contrast to Portugal, other drugs that are not marijuana-based are still very much illegal in every state. In fact, the reasoning for legalising weed often rested on this assertion, that by removing one drug crime, resources would be freed up to tackle other, more damaging variations.

Yet here America has encountered a more fundamental issue, often a feature of drug use and life in general: escalation. As human-beings we are always searching for more, trying to feed our insatiable and greedy needs for complete satisfaction. Although these new laws in the U.S. are created in innocence, a few doped up teenagers in their friend’s bedroom, smoking a joint without fear that the flying squad will imprison them for life, where will it end? We are always looking for the next rung on the ladder of pleasure. Will the mass use of cocaine lead to its eventual legalisation, or will a new form of high entrench itself into adolescent American culture, the way that marijuana has now?

With the relatively recent legalisation of drugs in Portugal and the U.S.A., it is clear only time will tell.

Sam Sedman


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