Consumption of illegal drugs is a menace

Consumption of illegal drugs is a menace

Gary Mead, Orwell Partner, argues that muddled thinking has left everyone confused, and hysterical language doesn’t help either

A remarkable event went almost unnoticed over the Easter weekend – Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, introduced a Bill to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. Only one other country – tiny Uruguay in South America – has completely legalised cannabis as a consumer product, although eight US states have done so to various extents. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. There, drug use among the 15-24 year-old population has declined steeply, as have drug-related deaths.

Trudeau’s Bill is expected to pass the Canadian parliament and by mid-2018 the country is expected to have legal sales of the drug. Growing, importing, exporting or selling cannabis outside licensed channels will remain serious crimes in Canada – but in this country there is finally recognition that prohibition has failed, and that state control is the only solution to dealing with cannabis, as with tobacco and alcohol.

I’ve grown to adulthood living under the more or less worldwide “war on drugs”, as declared by US President Richard Nixon in 1971, and perpetuated by successive American Presidents. So far this year the US has spent more than $12 billion in its self-proclaimed “war on drugs” and is spending roughly $500 a second. While my children know of the dangers of smoking and alcohol, they are left confused about other drugs that are deemed illegal. I know that they encounter illegal drugs and people selling or using such drugs at their university and school. I know that, such are the taboos against open discussion of illegal drug use they are reluctant to talk about such drugs with their parents. I daily worry that they may take something they do not know anything about – not its production, not its derivation, not its ingredients – not anything. If they suffer as a consequence, society may say that’s their own fault for dabbling in stuff that is illegal. But calling it illegal will not deter them – will not deter any teenager – from experimentation. It didn’t deter me and I was oblivious to the risks I took. I was lucky; they may not be.

The world is in a state of confusion, too. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, established to “bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies”, published a report in 2011 stating: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” It recommended the decriminalising of “drug use by those who do no harm to others.” Nevertheless, the UN ducked the issue in 2016. The UN general assembly special session – known as UNgass – maintained a prohibitionist policy, criminalising all drug use that is not for medical or scientific purposes. The “war on drugs” has been a massive failure, not only in terms of money wasted and lives ruined, but simply in terms of production of the drugs themselves. The illegal cultivation of opium poppies increased to the highest levels on record in 2014, reaching almost 320,000 hectares globally, while cocaine production rose 38% from 2013 to 2014.

So we live – and our children live – in a state of confusion about illegal drugs. On one hand there are moves to reinforce criminalisation; on the other moves to press for legalisation and regulation.

If we bring these high-level negotiations and policymaking down to the personal level – how to protect our children from a stupid pointless death – then for me there is little alternative to accepting facts. Couching our understanding of dealing with illegal drugs in terms of a ‘war’ is positively unhelpful. It’s war without end, in which there are many casualties and no victory.

The state needs to accept that it cannot legislate for personal behaviour that causes no harm to others. Indeed, it should give up trying to do so. We already have highly damaging drugs that are, within well-defined and widely-accepted limits, free for personal use. Alcohol and tobacco are licensed, controlled at the point of sale, subject to legal restrictions on consumption, and punished when abused to the point of damaging others. They are also highly toxic and cause death and disease. Moreover, they are a source of revenue for the government. There is no logical reason why the same parameters cannot be applied to cannabis, heroin, cocaine or any other drug currently deemed illegal. Declaring something illegal does not mean people cease doing it. If we want to protect our children – and this is not about encouraging drug use, but controlling the havoc we currently have – we need to face realities. We need to regulate and control the production, distribution, and consumption of all substances that humans ingest. Until that happens we will see yet more tragic cases of young people dying in ignorance, alone, and stigmatised. This is why I support Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control, and why you should too.

Photo of Justin Trudeau by Todd Korol/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press