The Drugs Laws Don’t Work

It took ex-drugs minister Bob Ainsworth publicly questioning UK drugs policy for the issue to be given the publicity it so urgently needs. A committee of leading scientists did so three years ago, publishing a paper which showed the current classification of drugs has no basis in evidence, and Horizon covered the findings in an excellent documentary. In response, the previous home secretary Alan Johnson sacked the lead author from his post as head of the advisory board on drugs, and the current government is trying to abolish the requirement for six scientists to sit on the board. It is clear that there is a conflict between the politicians’ interests in being seen to be ‘tough on drugs’, and the public good.
Rational scale to assess the harm of drugs – Nutt et al. 2007
The aptly named Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire said: “Drugs are harmful and ruin lives – legalisation is not the answer.” Unfortunately for the minister, two of the three deadliest drugs are legal – tobacco and alcohol. Some of the facts about smoking in Horizon bear repeating: it kills 1/5 of the population, reduces life expectancy by 10 years on average, is responsible for 40% of hospital admissions, 1 in 2 lifelong smokers will die from it, and it kills more than all other drugs, HIV, homicide, suicide and road traffic accidents combined.


In comparison to other drugs, tobacco kills 114,000 of 10m users per year (1.14%), heroin 700 of 300,000 users (0.23%), alcohol 40,000 of 40m users (0.1%), cocaine 214 of 780,000 users (0.027%), ecstasy 27 of 500,000 users (0.0054%), and cannabis 1 of 3m users (0.000033%).

There is of course a popular conception of tobacco and alcohol as being separate from other drugs, a mutual reinforcement between drugs classification and social acceptance. But there may be another reason why we fail to recognise the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, due to a bias in our perception of causation. The role of the causal agent is more salient in immediate cause-effect relationships than in those which are long-term.

Deaths from drugs like ecstasy tend to occur on the same day, whereas those from tobacco and alcohol are long-term diseases such as cancer, and so they don’t take on the same spectre of harm. Some alcohol-related deaths are immediate like those caused by drink-driving, but these are put down to a ‘culture of acceptance’. Apply the same logic to ecstasy-related deaths, and there would be a ‘culture of acceptance’ of drinking too much water, which leads to death by hyperhydration. Clearly in both cases it is the direct result of the drug inhibiting normal restraint.

But due to their popularity, any suggestion of prohibition of tobacco and alcohol would obviously be futile. The only other logical solution to the inconsistency in classification would be to legalize all drugs, or at least those less harmful than alcohol. The rationale behind this would be that any drug users moving from or using less tobacco and alcohol would improve the health and so financial state of the whole nation. This isn’t an absolute stance on drugs policy, rather a relative one – all drugs less harmful than the most harmful legal drug should also be legal.

Wilkinson & Pickett (2009)

So what has caused UK scientists and politicians to propose reforms that would make the UK world leaders in the field, ahead of countries with more liberal existing drugs policies, such as the Netherlands? It may be the terrible extent of drug abuse, with the UK, Scotland and Edinburgh in particular, being named in a UN study as the drugs capital of Europe. The UK has one of the worst drugs habits of any rich country, and fits on the correlation between income inequality and drug abuse in rich countries. This relationship suggests the ultimate driving force behind drug abuse is not leniency of drugs policy, but the harshness and inescapability of the conditions that drugs are taken to forget.

In light of this, legalization wouldn’t tackle the root cause of drug abuse, but it would stop the current system of encouraging people to take drugs like alcohol and tobacco, which are many times more harmful than most of the currently illicit drugs they might otherwise take.


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