Legalising drug use would send the wrong message

There may be some benefits in decriminalising drug users but legalising drugs would send out the wrong message - especially to young people

Several celebrities, including Dame Judi Dench and Sir Richard Branson, have put their names to a letter to the Prime Minister calling for “a swift and transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies”. This coincides with a separate plea by former world leaders and others to governments worldwide to think seriously about decriminalisation because the ‘war on drugs’ is deemed to have failed.

Of course it is impossible to know how much better or worse the world drug situation would be if drug use had been legal all along. Alcohol and tobacco are legal drugs and there is no criminalisation attached to their use. Could this be the reason why they are by far the most dangerous drugs around in terms of deaths, cost to the NHS and (in the case of alcohol) social problems?

As a drug and alcohol education charity for children and young people, Hope UK is also concerned about the message that legalising drug use would send to children and young people. When cannabis was reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug a few years ago, our Drug Educators found that children were assuming this meant the drug was safe for them to use. Subsequent concerns about links to mental health problems caused the Government to reclassify it back to Class B.

For children and young people, ‘legal’ equates to ‘safe’.

It is likely that many people are currently deterred from using drugs because they are illegal. They might be tempted to experiment if they were made legal. Even with adults, legalisation is likely to equate with the perception that drug use, like alcohol use, carries an acceptable degree of risk.

However, it is important to distinguish between legalising drugs and decriminalising drug users. Portugal is sometimes held up as an example of a country where the decriminalisation of drug users has worked well (though it is still illegal to take drugs).

Since 2001, drug-users have been offered help from ‘dissuasion boards’ but are not prosecuted. A range of services have been set up to help people at different stages of their involvement with drugs. Sanctions are still applied to those who refuse help and persist in their use of illegal drugs, but this stops short of a criminal record. Viewing persistent drug use as an illness rather than a crime makes it easier for users to get help.

So is this policy working? Drug use has apparently not increased and addiction rates have fallen. There is less drug-related petty crime and fewer cases of HIV. But a report in Drink and Drug News (11/10/10) indicates that “there is a growing tide of resentment as the Portuguese economy falters”. The money that is saved in the courts is, to some degree at least, being spent on providing clinical and medical services to drug users.

There are no easy answers to the drug problem. The decriminalisation of drug users may have benefits if measures are put in place to help them into recovery, but legalising drugs, even certain ‘less harmful’ drugs like cannabis, sends out the wrong message, especially to children and young people.

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Drug use often leads to addiction. This is when drug rehab facilities are a necessity to recovery.

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