Should drugs be legalised?

The call for the present drug laws to be changed has come from many quarters.

The legalisation debate

The debate itself can be broken down into three key elements:

  • Civil liberties versus the duty of the state;
  • The harm caused by drugs and enforcing prohibition;
  • The way a legalised regime would be managed.

Civil liberties

Freedom to use

The degree to which the state is justified in interfering in the private life of the citizen thereby restricting freedom of choice is hotly debated. The principle of personal choice is applied to a wide range of private activities and why not drug use?

Duty to protect

On the other hand, if by using drugs, an individual is causing significant harm to themselves or others, the state can rightfully seek to counteract that harm. Compulsory wearing of seatbelts is an example. In legislating against drug use, the government is seen to be discouraging a potentially harmful behaviour. Legalising any drug would be sending out the message to society that intoxication is a sanctioned behaviour.


Health impact

Increasingly health is cited as the main reason for prohibition. The latest international review of cannabis by the World Health Organisation highlights dangers such as lung and throat cancer, and increasing incidence of mental health problems due to prolonged heavy use in a minority of users. Consideration should also be given to whether the harm drugs cause, which may not be great for many users, warrants the government’s intervention.

The harm of current laws

While the drug laws are there to prevent what the government sees as harmful behaviour, some see them as harmful in themselves. They are seen as making users criminals, creating strong and lucrative black markets and stigmatising those who need help the most – the addict.

How would legalisation be managed?

Crucial to the debate on legalisation are the issues around the practicalities of one situation over another. On the one hand making drugs legal and more available will result in more use and so increasing the incidence of harmful side effects – at great cost to society. On the other hand, removing a black market could raise drug related revenues to the government, save on police costs and help regulate the sale and consumption of drugs through regulated sales (as is done with alcohol).

Other related issues

One drug leads to another – escalation theory

Cannabis and other drugs are often regarded as providing a ‘gateway’ to more or problematic drug use. This is known as escalation theory. All that can be said is that most people who use heroin will have previously used cannabis (though only a small proportion of those who try cannabis go on to use heroin). This could be because cannabis actually does (at least for some people) lead to heroin use, but there are alternative explanations. People tend to use cannabis first simply because they come across it first.

Therapeutic use

Another dimension to the reform debate has been the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The British Medical Association has leant its support to calls for further research and the legal sale of drugs derived from cannabis has now begun. GW Pharmaceuticals, which specialises in developing clinical drugs from cannabis, has produced Sativex, a cannabinoid medicine approved in the UK for the treatment of spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis.