Should Drugs Be Decriminalised?

Between the ages of eleven months and seven I grew up in Henleaze, a small suburban community located on the outskirts of Bristol’s centre. My family and I lived in a semi-detached house of average size that separated us from our neighbours with wafer-thin walls, and my bedroom was next to that of a kind and charismatic teenage girl, Katie, who my parents regularly used to babysit my brother and me. During the first few years in the area her and I spent a lot of time together, generally consisting of us drawing half-scribbled pictures (well, mine certainly were) or us playing nonsensical, but wonderfully fun, games that we spontaneously invented, such as Who Can Say the Alphabet Fastest. Katie’s visits to our house became far less frequent as I grew older, though. Her absence was also accompanied by strange scratching noises, akin to the sound of rats gnawing into wooden floorboards, that usually emitted from her bedroom in the early hours of the morning. Katie, we soon discovered, an intelligent girl who aspired to study medicine at university, had become addicted to drugs.

Instigated and subsequently encouraged by a drug-dealing boyfriend, her habit slowly consumed her, eventually leading her to attempt to abstain from her dangerous diet of ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and smack – to go cold turkey. Indeed, those scratching sounds I sometimes heard were the result of her desperate efforts to do so (all of which, as far as I know, were unsuccessful) as she tried, literally, to climb up her bedroom walls, driven to near-madness by her cravings and confinement. Being a drug-addict, as one would expect, induced significant changes in Katie’s physical appearance. By the time I was eight her skin was pallid, her teeth were tinted grey, and her fingernails were bloody – bitten back to the quick. By the time we had left Henleaze, though, Katie had stopped scratching the walls: although that was only because she had started working as a prostitute in the back-streets of Bristol by then, feeding her illicit habit with equally illicit activities. But whilst the means through which Katie satisfied her habit may have been illegal, should the fact she was a drug-user have incriminated her, too? (I use the past tense because, though I hope I assume wrongly, I assume that Katie died several years ago, having failed repeatedly to stop taking drugs by the time my family left Bristol in 2005.)

Judging from the lowly social status of drug addicts nowadays, it seems that many of us, including myself at times, often fail to show any sense of understanding towards such individuals, identifying them as weak-willed people who have squandered their last chance at having a respectable life. Though we are generally responsible, of course, for upholding such a disparaging opinion of drug-addicts, our government and media have also encouraged us to think of them in such a negative way since the War on Drugs began in the UK with the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. Throughout this period, despite the consistent rise of drug-users worldwide and the illegal-drugs industry becoming the third most valuable in the world, now estimated to be worth around £294 billion, drug-users have been persistently punished for taking drugs, founded on the principle that being a drug-addict is immoral and, crucially, a lifestyle choice one makes. However, whilst taking drugs for the first time may be a lifestyle choice, though most people are probably peer-pressured into doing so, being a drug-addict is not: the principle on which hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of drug addicts have been incarcerated is completely false. ‘Addictions can be seen as a loss-of-control over what starts out as a voluntary behaviour’, says former government drugs advisor Dr. David Nutt. ‘Thus addiction is not, as some like to suggest, a lifestyle choice. It is a serious, often lethal, disease caused by an enduring (probably permanent) change in brain function’.

Having seen Katie descend into vice – one time she attacked an elderly woman, robbing her handbag, which she then tried to sell to someone else – I have seen this psychological change myself, one that can rip relationships within families and friendship groups apart. Consequently, when illegal drugs cause so much harm to its users and to those closest to them, why is it that current governmental law persecutes drug-addicts for their condition, a veritable disease, particularly when other addicts (such as nymphomaniacs or alcoholics) are not persecuted at all for theirs? In terms of its impact on the individual and on wider society, alcohol is ‘more harmful than heroin or crack’, according to a recent study in the UK’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. This study also states our country’s ABC drug-classification system ‘has little relation to the evidence of harm’. It is somewhat strange, then, that alcohol, a substance our government spends nearly £6 billion a year policing, is not subjected to the same rigorous legislation as Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth) or Morphine diacetate (Heroin), although it could be because the United States tried to prohibit it during the 20th century – and failed hopelessly.

There are obviously those who are still vehemently against the decriminalization of drugs*. Ann Widecomb, for example, the former Home Office minister, is quoted in the Telegraph saying: ‘There are only two ways of doing it, either you decriminalise all drugs or only the soft drugs. If you decriminalise just the soft drugs, all the efforts of the drug barons will then be poured into the hard drugs’. Her recommended drug policy, unsurprisingly, is ‘zero tolerance, from hard drugs down to the possession of soft drugs’. However, it is precisely this conservative, zero-tolerance policy that has been used for the past forty-two years – and it simply has not worked. ‘We’re in a recession’, says Steve Rolles, member of the anti-prohibition of drugs group Transform, ‘yet across the whole criminal justice system we are spending around £4 billion a year on drug enforcement that plainly isn’t working because drug-use and drug-related crime is going up’. Indeed, the failure of the War on Drugs in the UK is perhaps exemplified most by the fact ‘95% of all establishments’ in the restaurants and clubs of Kensington and Chelsea, according to The Guardian, recently tested positive for cocaine, an eye-widening figure that clearly indicates the severe extent to which drug-taking has become endemic within our society.

The argument for the decriminalization of drugs is strengthened further, also, by the study published by The Cato Institute with regard to the effect decriminalization has had on Portugal since it was passed as governmental law in 2001, the only member of the European Union to have done so at the time of writing this article. Having had one of the highest user-rates of intravenous drugs across Europe in 1998, notably heroin, Portugal has seen a 17% decrease in drug-related viruses (such as HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis) since it decriminalised drugs. With the Portuguese government investing a large percentage of money it saved on policing drugs, 147% more drug-users, after overcoming their initial fear of being prosecuted, have received rehab treatment. Instead of being penalized, drug-users are now referred to Commissions for Dissuasions of Drug Addiction that use social workers and psychologists, amongst other governmental and legal representatives, to adjudicate ‘administrative drug offenses and imposing sanctions – if any’. Indeed, according to the report, the commission will often suspend all sanctions if an ‘addict agrees to undergo treatment’, a decision I deeply wish my neighbour Katie was forced to make.

*Note: decriminalization does not mean drugs will be legalized; it means ‘either that only non-criminal sanctions, such as fines or treatment requirements, are imposed or that no penal sanctions can be’.

This article was originally published in The Prisma.

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