Last week, I was at Lancaster University to help give a talk on drug policy to a group of third year criminology students taught by Fiona Measham. One of the things that we did was to hand out pieces of paper and ask the lecture theatre if they could define the purpose of drug policy. The responses we got were broad and revealing, I feel.

There were two main responses, which were evenly matched in numbers. The first was “the purpose of drug policy is to prevent harm”, which is excellent. The whole raison d’etre of Re:Vision Drug Policy Network is of course to promote harm reduction as the main purpose of drug policy, so it is good to know that there’s a receptive audience already out there on campuses.

The second main response, however, “the purpose of drug policy is to prevent harm, so they should be banned to keep people away from drugs.” Obviously I totally agree with the first part of that statement. But the corollary is what is assumed by mainstream public discourse to be the logical next step – and that just doesn’t follow. What is a law? It’s a socially accepted convention that we obey that regulates our community. Banning a drug doesn’t stop anyone taking them, any more than banning murder prevents people killing other people. However, we ban murder to prevent harm to others and we enforce these laws; supposedly we ban drugs to prevent harm to ourselves. It’s important to remember that just by saying something is illegal doesn’t stop people doing it – if they weren’t doing it there wouldn’t be a law against it (there’s no law against dragon-hunting, for example). But everybody’s crime is nobody’s crime: up to a third of the UK population have taken an illegal substance. Is it it really a workable law when so many people are taking drugs (up to one million people take MDMA every week) and are neither punished, nor harmed (so 52 million MDMA trips, 10 deaths – it really is safer for you than horse-riding)? One has therefore to consider what harms are done by drugs and whether those harms are reduced by the fact that drugs are criminalised or not. I won’t go into the details here, but The Transform Drug Policy Foundation has an extensive briefing vault demonstrating that the dangers of drugs are enhanced by prohibition rather than helped, through associated violence, health implications, and the fact that people in trouble won’t engage with public services because they’re afraid of being arrested. Drugs can be dangerous, but so can sky-diving. We don’t ban sky-diving, we regulate it. Maybe we should do the same with drugs.

Another big response was that the purpose of drug policy was “to inform people about drugs and enable them to make their own choices” and “to encourage people to use drugs sensibly, including alcohol”. Clearly a lot of people were very concerned about the government’s role in educating people about drugs. It’s an interesting point, because the government does run education campaigns now, but which are rarely focussed on giving people information about drugs instead of trying to scare people entirely (Talk to Frank being a good example of this). Given the success of some public information campaigns in the past (everyone knows about their five-a-day), it is clear that the government could play a much bigger role. An unanswered question that remains from this particular response, is if illegal drugs should remain criminalised if people are being left to make their own informed choices.

A significant number of people also wrote simply that the purpose of drug policy was “to control drugs”. That’s a pretty loaded statement: how do you control drugs? What drugs do you control (e.g. why is aspirin legal and LSD isn’t?) What are your criteria for controlling them? How do you enforce those decisions? Controlling drugs isn’t so much a purpose as such, more a method by which the purpose of drug policy can be carried out. You can control drugs by banning them completely, or making them available in Boots; legalisation is as much a method of controlling drugs as criminalising their use. People who wrote this should really think about what they meant by that.

There were some interesting individual responses as well. Many thanks to the person who told us that the purpose of drug policy was “hello”, but a non-alcoholic beverage to the student who wrote that the purpose of drug policy is “to keep us safe“. I couldn’t agree more. Another student in the same vein wrote that we should “prevent overdosing by illegalising more drugs”: it is sadly a fact that most overdoses are a direct result of drugs being prohibited, because criminals cut the drugs they sell with anything from talcum powder to concrete dust, and purity levels vary so widely it’s impossible to be sure what you’re taking and whether it is safe or not.

Someone also wrote that the purpose of drug policy is to “prevent criminal activity” – I’m not sure what was meant by that. If they meant “prevent people from taking drugs”, then given that heroin use has risen by 1000% since it was banned in 1971, I can only suggest that’s a futile hope. If by criminal activity, they meant all the gang activity, violence, homicide and trafficking that goes on, that’s easy to end: just control and regulate all drugs, legally. In the 1930s, America tried to ban alcohol, and the mafia was born. When alcohol was finally legalised twenty years later, the mafia lost much of their income and influence overnight. Regulation deals with criminal activity, full stop.

There were also some response that I can only describe as, “interesting”. One person wrote that by reducing illegal drug use, we could “stop unemployment”. I fear the student who wrote that the purpose of drug policy was “to control society’s view and attitude towards drugs” has a future as a spin-doctor ahead of them. An interesting perspective came from a student who called for alcohol to be banned entirely because of its association with violent crime; I suppose it is a consistent view at least. And finally, one student said that the purpose of drug policy was “to protect people and ensure that other services such as the NHS aren’t overcrowded unnecessarily.” A true citizen. :)

The session produced some interesting discussion afterwards and I really enjoyed it. I think that what has really come out of this though is that even with a class there is a massive range of opinions that simply aren’t being heard or considered by those in charge of actually writing and setting our drug policy. It really is time to have that discussion.

Further Reading

* Transform Drug Policy Foundation
* In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs for personal use. The Cato Institute, an American think-tank, produced a report in 2007 that discovered that health problems in Portugal relating to drug use had actually fallen. Read it here.

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