The drug laws don't work

The winner of The Independent's student essay competition, Rachael Scott, argues that there are legal and moral reasons to change the law in order to decriminalise drugs
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The recent downgrading of cannabis from a class-B to a class-C drug has given fuel to an already fiery debate over the merits of legalising drugs. Several senior figures, from high-ranking police officers to politicians, philosophers and judges, have spoken out in favour of such a move, provoking the outrage of more conservative commentators. One striking feature of the arguments on both sides is their permeating vagueness in terms of factual information - caused in no small part by contradictory research. It is crucial, then, to admit that most contributions to the debate - this included - are based not necessarily on evidence but rather on pre-existing moral, social and political views.

The recent downgrading of cannabis from a class-B to a class-C drug has given fuel to an already fiery debate over the merits of legalising drugs. Several senior figures, from high-ranking police officers to politicians, philosophers and judges, have spoken out in favour of such a move, provoking the outrage of more conservative commentators. One striking feature of the arguments on both sides is their permeating vagueness in terms of factual information - caused in no small part by contradictory research. It is crucial, then, to admit that most contributions to the debate - this included - are based not necessarily on evidence but rather on pre-existing moral, social and political views.

Perhaps one of the simplest arguments in favour of legalisation or decriminalisation is that the alternative has not worked. Britain's "war on drugs" strategy, implementing policies based on police clampdowns and criminal sanctions, is apparently of little effect, as testified by the evidence that our drug problem is one of the worst in Europe. Countries with more relaxed laws, such as the Netherlands, have a far better record. Naturally, to divorce the misuse of drugs from wider social problems such as unemployment, poverty, class alienation and poor education is highly artificial, and the success of Dutch policy is surely linked to high standards of living and a more equal society than is evident in the UK. Nevertheless, to impose strict sanctions on drug abusers merely exacerbates the problem, for several practical reasons.

First, it hands over the supply and control of illegal drugs to criminal gangs, whose sphere extends far beyond the realm of dealing and into areas such as money-laundering, human-trafficking, prostitution and terrorism. The financial power wielded by such groups clearly stems from the drug market and means that they have an interest in retaining the "war on drugs", as it keeps drug prices buoyant and therefore gives them high profits.

Further, many of the deaths attributed to hard drugs are in fact the result of dealers stretching the amount they have for sale by "cutting" substances with household chemicals. The legalisation of drugs would facilitate quality controls. In addition, it would diminish the power of the gangs by undercutting black-market prices, which are swollen by the high risks involved in illegal trafficking. The Government's aim to help Afghanistan to reduce its production of opium by 70 per cent by 2008 will only inflate prices further and enhance the already documented need of addicts to turn to crime in order to fund their habit.

The existence of that need is in itself further justification for the legalisation of both soft and hard drugs. Many offences in this country are known to be committed by drug abusers, either while under the influence or in order to pay their suppliers. The availability, on prescription, of currently illegal substances, and possibly their administration by medical staff, would help to prevent this, first by providing a safe environment in which addicts might succumb to the drugs' effects, and second by diminishing the financial burdens on them.

Similarly, it has become apparent that drug misuse in prisons is prolific, and that an enormous number of addicts do not receive sufficient or indeed any treatment while serving sentences, with the effect that their dependency merely worsens. Imposing penal rather than community sentences for drug-related offences is not only less effective in terms of rehabilitation, but also adds to the already overcrowded prison population and immerses drug users into a broader criminal culture.

Current laws increase the social stigmatisation of drug abusers as "criminals", which adds to their potentially low self-esteem and may stop them seeking help. Treating their behaviour rather as a medical problem might begin to reverse this. Much criticism has been directed at recent governments for their tentative steps towards recognising drug users as victims rather than criminals, but such an approach can surely be seen to be founded in fact.

The so-called "slippery slope" or "gateway" argument against legalisation, based on the assumption that if any drug is legally available, a descent from "soft" to "hard" drugs or from occasional to dependent use will inevitably follow, holds little weight. While bearing in mind the opening premise of the present discussion, that no research-based evidence is irrefutable, a portion of the Home Office report into the reclassification of cannabis is worth examining. It asserts that "even if the gateway theory is correct, it cannot be a particularly wide gate, as the majority of cannabis users never move on to class-A drugs", and that "the risks (if any) are small and less than those associated with the use of tobacco or alcohol." It is likely that any introduction to more dangerous drugs can be explained in commercial terms - the same dealer will usually be able to offer different substances, which might not be the case if their supply were government-controlled.

It is also argued that it would be unfair for taxpayers to bear the cost of drug users' self-inflicted need for prescribed substances. Again, that is flawed, and here a "slippery slope" argument may well be valid, in that if addicts are to be denied treatment because their condition is self-imposed, where is the line to be drawn? Many lung-cancer sufferers have been lifelong smokers - should they be left without treatment? An unhealthy lifestyle contributes to the risk of heart disease, yet it is not suggested that cardiac patients should be denied medical aid at taxpayers' expense. A good society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, regardless of fault. Moreover, it is likely that the money spent would be easily recouped by the savings in both prison and police costs.

The arguments surrounding the potential consequences in law of drug legalisation are perhaps more delicately balanced, and depend to a great extent on what the function of the law is deemed to be. Those who argue against legalisation purport that the law aims "to conserve not only the safety and order but also the moral welfare of the state", and thus that the legal status of an activity must reflect its moral value. According to that theory, the legalisation or decriminalisation of drug abuse will suggest that it is an acceptable activity. Similarly, since supreme legislative power is vested in the citizens of the UK, as represented in Parliament, it follows that popular morality should be reflected in Parliamentary legislation. It is unlikely that in the current climate a majority of UK citizens would want soft or hard drugs legalised, and it would therefore be not only constitutionally unsound but also politically foolish for legislation to be passed.

That theory is open to criticism: in a country with an extremely diverse population and at a time of rapidly evolving moral standards, it is surely impossible to define - and therefore to reflect - "popular morality". In any case, by no means all that is legal is morally praiseworthy - for example, intoxication by alcohol - just as not all that is illegal is morally reprehensible per se - for example, driving at 78 miles per hour on a motorway. The latter illustration shows that many laws serve a practical, rather than moral, purpose. In the 21st century it is arguably more appropriate to view the law not as a slave to morality but as a system of regulation of society's behaviour. It follows that any act may be illegal purely by being declared illegal in the relevant manner, irrespective of the motive for doing so. In addition, the doctrine of legal certainty (which states that the law must be understandable to those bound by it) would be well served by the clarification of the current laws. Under them, a heroin addict may be prescribed drugs by his doctor and yet may receive a lengthy prison sentence if found in possession of the same drug at home. This, and other similar contradictory messages, cannot be in the interests of justice, and only total legalisation of all drugs will resolve the ambiguity.

To advocate the legalisation of drugs is merely to take a pragmatic stance; to admit that the law as it stands does not work, that its ideal of eradicating drug use is illusory, and that mitigation of the problem is a worthwhile and achievable goal.

Rachael Scott is the winner of this year's College of Law and 'Independent' essay competition for law students: 'Are you in favour of or against the legalisation or decriminalisation of the use of soft or hard drugs?'