Decriminalizing drugs


Professor Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has said the use of illegal drugs should be decriminalized, ‘drastically reducing crime and improving health’. Contrary to the government’s view, Gilmore has commented that the present system (the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced in 1971) is simply not working, and that there is a strong case for trying a different approach.

"I’m not saying we should make heroin available to everyone – but we should be treating it as a health issue rather than criminalizing people." Decriminalizing drugs would not mean legalization. People would not be able to buy heroin and cocaine like they can alcohol. The government would have licensing controls, and would attempt control on things like manufacture and supply. Whilst individuals would not be prosecuted for possession, trying to trade using a personal supply would be illegal.

One has to ask, why should people be punished for using drugs? In punishing someone a disability is imposed upon him. Just because an individual’s drug use may lead to ‘bad social consequences’, does not equate it with the requirement of justice to impose punishment only on one who has violated rights (of another individual). Punishing drug users suggests that an individual should be punished purely because if they are not punished, they may continue to commit the act they are being punished for. This is what makes the criminalization of drugs unique; we would not invoke that kind of rationale for a thief or murderer.

In punishing individuals solely because their actions may encourage other to do the same, the medical and mental position of that person is utterly neglected. Those who support decriminalization say it should be combined with diverting money from police to drug treatment services because criminal trafficking would dramatically decrease. The Home Office has said its priorities are clear: to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good. But, many believe this is only possible through decriminalization. The government claims decriminalization sends the wrong message, encouraging young people to think substances aren’t harmful. Nonetheless, a vast proportion of drug-related crimes within the drugs market come from the fact drug sales are illegal, and medical complications such as the numerous complications that come from dirty needles and contaminated drugs (Gilmore said it was rarely the drugs themselves which caused further difficulties) originate in the illicit nature of drug taking.

Everyone will accept that drugs have bad effects – mental and physical. Arguments for the complete legalization of drugs fall foul of effectively setting out how side effects would not become massive hindrances to the individual and to others. However, to prohibit because to allow would be somehow ‘wrong’, ignores the freedoms one has with alcohol. More seriously, it means many who should be treated as patients are being branded criminals. And, the basic axiom of self-ownership is all but forgotten.