Drug misuse in the UK has a knock-on effect on health care, criminal justice, and social service systems. Many people, including some politicians, are of the opinion that decriminalising drugs would go some way toward alleviating these burdens.
So, would decriminalising drug possession and supply solve these problems or merely serve to create more?
Decriminalisation of drugs in other countries
Switzerland introduced a so-called “needle park” with the intention of restricting heroin users to a small area of Zurich. Unfortunately, that soon attracted over 20,000 addicts from far and wide, so the park had to be closed down before the whole city was taken over by addicts.
In Italy, where a few wraps of drugs purely for personal use has generally been overlooked and left unprosecuted, the country has one of the highest rates of addiction in Europe, attributing over 60% of AIDS cases to intravenous drug use.
The Netherlands established “coffee shops” that permitted customers to choose varieties of marijuana just as they might choose between a latte and an espresso. In the following decade, adolescent use of recreational “grass” almost trebled. In response to national and international condemnation, the Dutch government drastically restricted marijuana shops, and, in 2007, the sale of hallucinogenic (magic) mushrooms was banned.
Decriminalising drugs versus restriction
Sweden took a different approach to decriminalising drugs by implementing a restrictive drug policy. In the 1990s, rising drug use saw increased police action, the creation of a national drug coordinator, and the launch of a national action plan.
The result of that action now sees drug use at just a third of the average in Europe and begs the question of whether restriction would be a more effective strategy to adopt than decriminalising drugs altogether.
Decriminalising drugs; UK stance
When it comes to decriminalising drugs, UK stance varies. Some experts suggest that legalising drugs would help to reduce overdoses and the deaths of users. However, others are dead set against the idea for any number of reasons.
The pro legalisation lobby state the following arguments for decriminalising drugs:
- Taxing drugs would bring extra revenue into the government coffers.
- Health and safety controls would be implemented to make recreational drugs safer
- Access to drugs such as cannabis for medicinal use would be easier.
- People would have more personal freedom to decide whether they wanted to experiment with recreational drugs without being treated as criminals.
- Criminal gangs would go out of business, reducing violent crime, and relieving pressure on the police.
- Some countries, including Uruguay and Portugal, have seen decriminalising drugs lead to a reduction in drug-related problems.
Those who are set against the decriminalisation of drugs in the UK put forward the following objections:
- If drugs are legally available, more new users could be drawn into drug use.
- Teenagers and children would have easier access to potentially dangerous, addictive substances.
- Because of government taxes on drugs, drug trafficking, and its inherent problems would still be a problem, as criminal networks would seek to provide drugs at a lower price for consumers.
- <li>Countries who first begin to legalise drugs could become a mecca for drug tourism.
- Road accidents caused by users driving while under the influence of drugs could increase.
- Drugs would still create a big public health problem, even if safety controls were in place. Mental health disorders, brain and lung damage, and heart disease would still place a burden on the NHS, which could potentially increase.
- It would still be likely that people would become addicts and die from misusing legalised drugs, as seen in the US opioid crisis.
Drugs themselves are not dangerous, purely because they are illegal. Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous.
Research suggests that a child who attains the age of 21 without using alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs is pretty much certain never to do so. Most children don’t use illegal drugs, but every child, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, are vulnerable to addiction and drug misuse.
Decriminalising drugs and making them legal looks set to increase drug availability and use among young people, placing an even greater strain on public health and social services.