The Lib Dems are Right: Why it is Time to Legalise Drugs

By James O Malley on at

Remember the Liberal Democrats? Today the Independent reports that the party is pushing to legalise drugs, with their Home Affairs spokesman Brian Paddick saying the Tory government's approach is "doomed to failure".

Since winning re-election last month, the Tories have already stepped up plans for a blanket ban for so-called "legal highs", which could leave offenders with up to seven years in prison.

At risk of being unfashionable: I agree with the Liberal Democrats. It seems that when they're not paralysed in awe at the prospect of a ministerial red briefcase, they actually come up with some good ideas.

Don't get me wrong. I don't say this as a self-interested drug user - I've never taken drugs, so I'm in the weird position of being more of a square than the likes of, umm, boring Conservative ministers Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude. But I still think that legalising drugs would make a lot of sense: we're only going to be able to handle it as a society if we stop seeing drugs as a criminal issue, but as a medical one instead.

What's the Harm if We Legalise Drugs?

First, in terms of principles I view this in terms of the old liberal harm principle: If people want to get stoned - as long as they don't harm anyone else - what business is it of ours to interfere? And as far as I can tell, most of the harm caused by drug use is thanks to drugs being criminalised in the first place. Surely it isn't the dope-smoking students who are the violent criminals, but the dealers and distributors?

If drugs were legal, this would disappear as proper, law-abiding companies would be able to take over the distribution and retail of substances. This would mean not only are supplies safer (and not cut with anything sinister), but the cash wouldn't be going to organised crime and (according to some of the wilder claims) terrorist groups.

legalise drugs

A legal cannabis store in Colorado.

The government could also collect tax revenues off the back of it. Given the drive for austerity and the supposed need to bring down the deficit, surely it is surprising that the Conservatives haven't suggested it? Several American states have already cottoned on to this, and in recent years have legalised the sale of cannabis, making the drug now available through state-licensed dispensaries. In Colorado, there's a 2.9% tax on retail marijuana, so perhaps instead of demonising drug users, parents should be thanking them for helping pay for their kids' education?

Of course, harm isn't just crime. Harm could also be viewed as the negative social affects of having, say a friend or family member hooked on something. But surely this isn't a problem that should be criminalised? In fact, there is already a legal drug which causes problems like this: Alcohol. Would you really want your alcoholic relatives to be locked up for alcoholism? Or would you prefer if they were to seek medical treatment instead?

There is perhaps an analogy with adultery. No doubt adultery is devastating for the people it directly affects, but having it criminalised by the state would not stop people doing it, nor would it make things better for anyone involved. Abortion too - even the staunchest pro-choice advocates would probably admit that it is not a pleasant procedure to go through, but as evidenced by other countries where it is banned, people are still going to have them. So the conversation should instead be around making it safer and accessible to those who need it.

Theory aside though, it seems from the real world examples we have that legalisation actually works. The stand-out example is that of Portugal, which (broadly) decriminalised drugs in 2000, and since has seen a reduction in HIV transmission, overdoses and perhaps most intriguingly, overall drug use. Clearly legalisation wouldn't create a moral panic where everyone is on drugs - it would still be an activity participated in by a small proportion of people, like smoking tobacco.

The Problem is Politics

So what's stopping Britain from doing the right thing? As you might expect, the answer is of course politics.

There simply isn't the political will to change the status quo. You might remember how last month the LibDems got wiped out in the election - so now there's no longer any (slightly more reliably) liberal voices in government. And unfortunately, both the Tories and the Labour Party have found success when talking tough on drugs. Back when Labour actually won elections, Tony Blair would talk about "every parent's nightmare" as a reason why the laws need to be tough.

Though sadly for fans of reality, the tough talk doesn't match up with what would be the effective thing to do. It's a bit like how immigration hysteria will win votes but ultimately be detrimental to the country. Sadly if you're reading this and nodding along, then you're probably in a minority, most of the rest of the country just doesn't agree with you.

The future of drugs legislation looks particularly bleak too, if not actively going in the wrong direction. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, as noted by Ian Dunt, is significant in that it bans everything "intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect". Ridiculously, this means that the government is having to build in specific opt-outs for medical products, alcohol, tobacco and even food. Everything else, whether it exists now or will be invented in the future, is banned by default.

Ultimately drugs are another example of a Bad Thing which you can't simply wish away with new laws. Just like how The Silk Road might be the cost of living in a free society, unless we're willing to go full-on authoritarian in every aspect of our lives, there will always be people who use drugs. And only when we accept that reality can we start to do something to make the lives of drug users and non-drug users better.