Decriminalisation: The Future of Drug Policy?

This week, the Houses of Parliament have debated the legalisation of cannabis after receiving an online petition with over 220,000 signatures whilst a leaked report from the Treasury stated that legalising cannabis could bring in millions of pounds in tax. The Gryphon examines the issues with current UK drug policy and explores the potential benefits that reforms could bring to the UK.

Currently all drugs in the UK are controlled by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The Act sets out which drugs can be legally sold and which ones cannot: everything from the painkillers you take and the alcohol you drink, right through to the weed that you should not be smoking are covered by this law. All illegal drugs are broken down into three classes: A, B and C. Class A drugs are deemed to be the most harmful and carry the highest penalties for being found in possession of them.

The Government has the ultimate authority over which drugs are legal and which are illegal. For instance, heroin is deemed as harmful with no benefits to society, whilst morphine can be legally used for patients in extreme pain. Both are opiate-based, however, the Government has made one illegal and the other legal. The Government claims that their decisions are based on the drug’s potential harm to society and to the user. However, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform group argues that this is not always the case.

The Gryphon spoke to MP Paul Monaghan a Vice Chair of the Drug Policy Reform group: medical

“I support the development of legislation that can allow drugs with a medicinal use to be regulated for legal use […] I would favour the regulation of cannabis as a Schedule 2 drug rather than a Schedule 1 drug as it currently is. This would allow cannabis to be used legally by individuals with a range of health conditions.”

Numerous trials have shown cannabis to be helpful for a range of medical conditions. Amongst others, it is said to ease the pain of those going through chemotherapy, help with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and can numb the effects of Multiple Sclerosis. Despite these trials, it remains illegal for medical use.

A House of Commons report in 2006 criticised the Government for basing decisions on the legality of drugs on a lack of scientific evidence: ‘…the ACMD [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs] has failed to adhere to key elements of the Government’s Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees’. This is not just limited to drugs with potential medical benefits. In 2007, the then Head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt, published a controversial paper. The paper claimed that legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, are more harmful than MDMA, weed, LSD and ketamine. But if alcohol and tobacco could cause more harm than some Class A drugs, why are they legal?
History has shown us that banning alcohol tends not to work: the United States’ failed attempt to ban alcohol in the last century provides evidence enough of this.Introduced in 1920, it led to a surge in gang violence as the opportunity to smuggle or brew illegal drink made small-time criminals into big-time gangsters.

The Gryphon also spoke to Baroness Stern, Vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform:

“Prohibition has not reduced the numbers of people who use drugs and the resulting involvement of organised crime in drug trafficking has caused extremely serious problems all around the world.”

According to the 2014/15 crime survey of England and Wales nine percent of adults aged 16 to 59 had taken illegal drugs in the last year. The percentage for those aged 16-24 was even higher at nineteen percent. A survey of 500 students carried out by the Gryphon in 2014 found that seventy-seven percent of students at the University of Leeds have taken illegal drugs at some point in their lives.

Decriminalisation is the most likely reform that could foreseeably change government policy for all illegal drugs. However, decriminalisation is not legalisation, which is what we have currently for alcohol and tobacco. It simply makes it legal to be in possession of a small amount of a drug, whilst remaining illegal to grow, import, or sell them. We asked Baroness Stern about the possible benefits of this type of reform:

“Decriminalisation is proportionate and humane, makes our approach to drugs consistent with our approach to alcohol, encourages people to seek help if they have a problem with how they are using substances and saves significant amounts of money in police and court costs and the costs of administering punishments; money which can be spent on services to reduce harm.”

In the early 2000s, Portugal had one of the largest drug problems in Europe, with one of the highest rates of HIV infections from sharing needles and a high number of drug-related deaths. The leaders of the country took a bold step and in 2001 decriminalised the acquisition, possession, and use of all drugs.

The Gryphon spoke to Dr Mark Monaghan, a lecturer at the University of Leeds and an expert on the subject of drugs and government policy, who has written two books focusing on the issues of crime and drugs:

“All the evidence from Portugal is that levels of drug-related harm (e.g. adverse public health effects) and drug-related crime have gone down as a consequence of changes in Portuguese policy.”

We also asked Baroness Stern what the impact of potential drug reforms could have on students:

“As they are mostly young people,stern students are more likely to take drugs and experiment with drugs than other age groups which makes them more vulnerable to harm both in the short term and the long term […] A key element in any worthwhile reform is to ensure that young people get accurate and credible information about any drugs that they obtain in order to reduce risk. Such information services should be adequately resourced.”

This principle is synonymous with sex education – when governments spend more money on education and harm-prevention, it is more likely to have a positive impact than preaching abstinence. When education is focused around fully informing students about the dangers, they are more likely to make positive life choices. The same principles can apply to education on drugs. Whilst buying drugs could become easier under these potential reforms, informed students would be more likely to make positive decisions. When they come across problems, long and short term, they would also be in a better position to find help.

Whatever your view on the morality of drug use, it is difficult to argue that current government strategy is working. The 2006 report on drug classification by the House of Commons’s Science and Technology Committee ‘found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government’s classification policy’. But, for now, it seems more important that we look at better ways to protect people from the negative effects that both legal and illegal drugs can have.

Aaron Macarthy Beards

Images: Parenting patch, cnn,, limeculture

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