HEALTH / Second Opinion

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The Independent Culture
DRUG addiction is not necessarily for life. Someone who becomes addicted to heroin will give up its use after, on average, six years - if they haven't died before then from infections (Aids and hepatitis) associated with unsterile needles, from an overdose, or from drug-related crime.

There is growing recognition that many of the problems of drug addicts come from the illegality of their behaviour and that decriminalisation - making safe, pure, cheap drugs available - may be the best answer to both the social and medical complications and the international crime associated with drug abuse. Several of our European neighbours are easing legal restrictions on drugs and the sale of cannabis is tolerated in the Netherlands. How risky for society would it be to making drug use legal?

All drugs taken for their effects on the brain have their dangers. Cannabis was included in international controls on drugs in 1923 at the request of Egypt, where experience showed that some heavy users of the drug withdrew into a passive, amotivational state. Even light use of cannabis may interfere with skills such as driving a car. Prolonged use may damage the lungs. But cannabis seems to be less damaging than alcohol. The research has not been done that would let us know for certain.

Trying to assess the effects of drugs that are currently illegal is extremely difficult, since the people studied are mostly addicts who remain addicted because of some underlying personality disorder. Heroin is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous and most addictive of the illegal drugs. Yet the experience of US servicemen in Vietnam paints a different picture. Around 40 per cent of them tried heroin or opium, and around half of those became more or less seriously addicted. On their return to the US 95 per cent of addicted servicemen came off their drugs and stayed off. People who are in good mental and physical health may, it seems, try addictive drugs without necessarily becoming permanently addicted.

As with cannabis, however, the research has not been done to tell us what would happen if heroin became easily available. Many would become users - as millions of the Victorians used laudanum (opium dissolved in water) sold freely in the 19th century.

Experience with doctors addicted to heroin or morphine has shown that it is possible to continue with a demanding job while taking some (but not all) drugs of addiction. Tobacco is an example of an addictive drug which doesn't interfere with performance; alcohol is a familiar example of one that does. We simply do not know whether adding more drugs to those already available would worsen or ease the situation.

The experience of prohibition of alcohol in the US suggests that one benefit of decriminalisation of drugs would be a fall in drug-related crime. And if the sale of drugs such as cannabis were taxed in the same way as tobacco, huge revenues could be earned. As a first step, society might consider spending some of the vast sums of money used on ineffective attempts to defeat the international drug trade on research to find out how damaging the illegal drugs would be if their use ceased to be a criminal offence.