We should all pay attention to drug-related laws because they affect many people in the UK, either directly or indirectly. Not only do these laws affect people who use drugs, but also their friends and family members, health professionals who have patients with drug-related issues, and police officers and ambulances in the front line of harm from drug crimes.
Drug-related crime also takes up most of the work undertaken by prisons, courts, and police. Some people feel that legalizing drugs and treating them the same as tobacco and alcohol, would go some way towards improving the issue. Furthermore, legalisation doesn’t need to apply to every illegal drug.
The case for legalisation
One argument for legalisation is that it would either eliminate or significantly reduce criminal networks and the black market associated with drugs. Other arguments include concentrating responses within health and taking the problem out of the police’s hands.
Governments could accrue taxation from illegal drugs like they do from tobacco, alcohol, and gambling.
Perhaps the strongest argument that has been made, however, is a prediction that it would lead to significantly increased drug use. We already know that tobacco and alcohol are not only widely consumed, but are associated with economic burden, including public nuisance, alcoholism treatment programmes, and hospital admissions. So why add to the burden?
Unfortunately, no direct research exists on legalisation due to the fact that it has yet to be made legal in any country. Suppositions, however, can be made with regards to a society’s cost savings.
Some research on legal and regulated cannabis indicates that the the kind of savings some commentators have predicted may not be made under a legalisation regime. Of course, this is hypothetical.
The decriminalisation of drugs is an alternative to legalisation. Essentially, it refers to the reduction of legal penalties. It can be achieved either by steering drug use offenders towards treatment options, rather than convictions or by changing legal penalties to civil penalties.
Decriminalisation largely applies to offences related to possession and drug use, rather than the supply or sale of drugs. Arguments that support decriminalisation include an emphasis on users, as opposed to suppliers. The aim is to offer users a more sensible and humane approach to drug use.
Decriminalisation could potentially reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and the police. It also takes care of such negative consequences as stigma associated with drug use convictions.
The moral arguments made for legalisation can also be made for decriminalisation, in that lesser penalties could suggest that drug use is approved of.
An argument made against decriminalization is that it fails to address the drug selling criminal networks and the black market. There are also worries that it would result in increased drug use. This assumes, however, that the current penalties are a deterrent for some people.
Many countries, such as Australia, have decriminalised the use of cannabis: measures taken include civil penalties rather than criminal penalties and diversion programmes (all Australian territories and states). In fact, we’re going to use Australias as an example for the rest of this article, as it’s a country where strong arguments have been made on both sides.
The moral argument says that legalisation would suggest illegal drugs are anti-social, amoral, and unacceptable in modern society. There’s a concern that legalisation would send a different message, i.e. the wrong one.
There hasn’t been any increased use of cannabis in Australia despite civil penalties being introduced in territories and states. And a study on encouraging drug offenders to seek treatment rather than find themselves convicted has shown that they have the same chance of successful treatment than those who attend voluntarily.
Research also noted, however, that there is a negative side in how decriminalization currently works in Australia, i.e. “net widening”, whereby more people wind up as part of the criminal justice system than would have been the case in a full prohibition system because police discretion is likely and/or they don’t fulfill their obligations.
Despite the mainly supportive evidence, politicians are showing a reluctance to pursue decriminalisation. Commentators have suggested that this is due to public opinion, as decriminalisation isn’t a popular policy choice.
Where cannabis is concerned, however, the public largely holds the opposite view. In the latest national survey, over 80 per cent of Australians supported the decriminalisation of cannabis.
There’s an insufficient understanding with regards to decriminalisation models, which has led to some confusion. Many people confuse it with legalisation. As discussed above, however, they are different in intent, policy, and action.