DEBATE: The case against drug decriminilisation in The UK

The Motion:  The War on Drugs isn’t working: we should decriminalise all drugs in the UK and monitor usage and users more closely?

Argument against the motion:  By Kathy Gyngell  (Research Fellow, the Centre for Policy Studies)

1. Drugs mess with your future

Drugs mess with your mind.  The collateral damage of drug use is huge and out of proportion to the number of people using them. It is easy to think that the risks are exaggerated until it is too late.  It is adolescents, whose brains are not yet fully developed and therefore least sensitive to risk for whom the risks are the highest.  Just one example of such risk is revealed in the growing body of evidence associating cannabis use with the risk of schizophrenia. Other short and long term risks associated with drug use and dependency abound.

For example the chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, Dame Helena Shovelton, recently pointed out that most young people are entirely unaware that:

 “..each cannabis cigarette they smoke increases their chances of developing lung cancer by as much as an entire packet of 20 tobacco cigarettes.”

2. Increased risk of later drug dependency

Another risk is the impaired cognitive functioning, school and university drop out, that cannabis use has been shown to be associated with. Teenagers  may not be aware either than teenage cannabis use significantly increases the risk of later drug dependency.

That is why drug possession should never formally be decriminalised, as advocated by Youth Rise and why this is a recipe for irresponsibility. None of the arguments underlying this approach wash:  ‘It is my body so what I do to it is my business alone’; ‘drug use is inevitable therefore we should just focus on reducing its harms’; ‘drug use is not per se harmful’ or only drug ‘misuse’ is harmful.  None of these are true. Drug use always impacts on someone else –often several people. Drug use is not inevitable. It is still the minority not the majority that even experiment.  There can never be a guarentee of safe drug use.

Formally decriminalising drugs would be to raise the white flag to increased drug supply. Normalising drugs like this would pile more pressure on people to use them. It would put more pressure on vulnerable young people – those in care and from broken homes – those already the heaviest users with the least resistance.  It would increas opportunities for sanction free low level dealing.

3. Difficult to police and monitor

The idea implicit in the motion, that use or harm can be moderated by a monitoring system is frankly unrealistic.  Who would be the drugs police in charge of this?  How would they decide between acceptable and unacceptable use? Would it mean making young people sign up to a register of cannabis users?  Would schools be forced to accept such a register of cannabis users in their midst – and how would that sit with a zero tolerance policy to protect other children in school?

If the idea of monitoring level’s drug use is fundamentally flawed to say nothing of an unrealistic burden on drugs workers, teachers or parents. There is no safe level  of drug use.

4. Creating a downward spiral

The truth is that use can lead to habit which leads to dependency and in turn dependency leads to addiction. Addicts always want more – that includes alcohol and cannabis or any other drug.  It is impossible to know who would be vulnerable and who would be safe. Illicit drug use is invariably associated with risk.  The only safe drug use is no drug use.  Yet decriminalisation actively condones drug use.  Of course this is the situation we are already in.

The most bemusing aspect of the proposition made by Youth Rise is that drug use is currently penalised in the UK. It is not. And it is certainly not prohibited in anything other than word.  De facto drug decriminalisation has been a fact of life in the UK for years.  Even drug use by the very young is tolerated.

Toleration, not prohibition, is the reason for the drug problem we face – for the collateral health, mental health and the social damage caused by drugs – from criminality to blood borne viruses, from addiction to child neglect.

Toleration not drug prohibition killed the heiress Eva Rausing. Toleration not prohibition led to the death on April 22 2011, of 15-year-old Isobel Reilly-Jones at an unsupervised party in her friend’s home.  The drugs which killed her were found in an unlocked cupboard in her friend’s father’s bedroom – a man whose drug use since his self-confessed hippy days had clearly been tolerated and condoned.

Not even the keenest proponents of decriminalisation (or legalisation) could argue that the formal introduction of either would have saved Isobel’s life.  Mr Dodgeon, the father in question, had bought, stored and used drugs for years without sanction.

At his arrest after the death of Isobel, he admitted four charges of possessing drugs including ecstasy, LSD and ketamine. His remorse led him to attempt his life. Tragic though this was afterwards he only received an extraordinarily lenient eight-month sentence, suspended for two years. The real tragedy was that there was no ealier check or sanction on his behaviour.

5. Leaving the dealers in charge

Former Met head, Sir Iain Blair has described decriminalisation as the worst of all worlds; leaving the criminals/suppliers in charge of the streets and kids at their mercy. Isobel’s death was a direct result of the de facto decriminalisation we already have.

It is true that an on-going ‘war’ against the drug trade is being waged in countries like Honduras and Mexico. But there is no such war here.  We do not even try to take on, let alone punish our Class A drug users. The penalties involved in Dodgeon’s case are typical.

Though supposedly the most serious of drugs, and used by up to a million people, only 12,175 of whom were sentenced for Class A possession offences in 2010.  Only 779 of these were sent to prison (most likely those with a long record and in possession of a large quantity).

Class A supply is supposedly so serious that the maximum sentence is ‘life’ in prison.  The reality was different.  In fact 774 out of 2,530 convicted Class A dealers did not go to prison at all, let alone for life.  Yet the main justification for cannabis law enforcement relaxation was exactly to ‘free up’ police and courts for pursuing the ‘evil dealers’.

Though a Class B drug and associated with serious health and mental health risks, cannabis possession and dealing offences are dealt with only by warnings and by cautions.  They are, in effect, sanction free. Only one in eight offences even gets to court. Few children are criminalised as the pro drugs lobby would have us believe.

This has not made one jot of difference to convictions for supply of Class ‘A’ drugs – the numbers have remained more or less unchanged for the past four years.

Our contribution to the war on drugs is the fact that we feed its flames.  Our unchecked selfish demand for drugs that the cartels then exploit and profit from is what keeps this iniquitous trade alive. As President Santos of Columbia said last year, “As long as people in the UK sniff coke here, or in New York or Paris, we will suffer here (in Latin America).”

6. Undermining international efforts

Our one contribution to this war has been to undermine the huge effort made by the United States to reduce demand there – an effort which has led cocaine consumption there to drop from 660 tons in 1988 to 165 tons in 2008 – by some 75%.

Far from there being a war on drugs, here drug use  is a matter of cultural indifference. It should not be.

There are brave individuals who stand up to this. The Conservative MP Louise Mensch for example candidly admitted on BBC’s Question Time to her use of Class A drugs when she was younger.  She refused to say which ones, in order not to ‘glorify’ them. But she said these had ‘messed up her head’ and left her with long-term mental health problems. She went on to say she opposed the legalisation of drugs, since making them more easily available was ‘exactly the wrong way to go’. So too would formal decriminalisation.

The problems is that drug use is already tolerated by society, the police and the courts.

7. Public acceptance leads to increased costs

Formalizing ‘decriminalisation’ in the law could only make matters worse. It would shift public indifference to public acceptance. The costs of the current relatively low level of drug use would increase. For drugs are not ordinary commodity. They affect the brain.

Their menace is not confined to the effect they have on people while they are using them. Nor is it simply that they are addictive. They also often have other long- term and possibly permanent ill-effects.

8. Drug use alters your body

When Ms. Mensch says they mess up your brain, that is exactly what they do. They interfere with its functioning and alter it, sometimes forever.

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health and Drug Abuse say that illegal drugs change the composition of the brain and can kill off areas of its activity.

After taking cocaine, it is not just that the brain is affected for a long time —the risk of heart attack is significantly increased. Other long-term effects of cocaine use — apart from addiction — range from irritability and mood disturbances to paranoia, psychosis, depression and auditory hallucinations. Withdrawal symptoms include depression and anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and an inability to feel pleasure.

Yet for all that cocaine may not be as bad as another drug commonly trivialized as a nightclub stimulant. According to Professor Andy Parrott, Britain’s most distinguished expert on Ecstasy, the effects of this drug — quite apart from the fact it has killed people — may be more serious even than those of cocaine.

9. Drugs can lead to mental illness

Nor can cannabis harms be underestimated. A report in 2004 set out the growing evidence that early and regular marijuana use was associated with increases in depression, suicidal behaviour and psychotic illness, as well as possibly bringing forward the onset of schizophrenia.

In 2007, the Lancet published an analysis of 35 medical studies, which warned that using cannabis could increase the risk of developing a psychotic illness later in life by more than 40 per cent.

Then just last year a systematic review by the University of Queensland, Australia, of more than 5,000 medical studies found that cannabis has been implicated in many major long-term psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety, psychosis, bi-polar disorder and an absence of motivation.


Given all this evidence, it is almost beyond belief that anyone can argue drugs should be decriminalised, or that this is the rational way to proceed to protect adolescents from risk.

Youth Rise’s proposition itself contributes to this culture of relative indifference to illegal drugs;  it contributes to their further normalisation, which has already sucked more and more young people at an ever earlier age into using them – a problem that is almost uniquely British.  For where there is less toleration of drug use, as in both Sweden and he vast majority of municipalities in Holland, the rate of drug use is significantly lower and the age of initiation higher.

Louise Mensch is by no means the only politician to admit to having taken drugs. Recently, the Labour MP, Chuka Umunna’s casual dismissal of the dangers of drugs illustrates precisely why Britain has drifted into such a spiral of drug harm that already is reported to cost us some £16 billion a year

It was under the Labour government that drug law enforcement was increasingly abandoned. It was under Labour that the practice of trying, instead, to manage the ill-effects of drug use became so widespread.

It was called ‘harm reduction’ — a Trojan horse for decriminalisation and legalisation. It has not worked. Addiction has become, with the state’s sponsoship, more entrenched.

We cannot afford any more such ‘normalisation’ or the possibility of increased peer pressure and the bullying that goes with it. We cannot afford to have more people addicted to mind-altering substances that damage their brains and bodies as well as those around them. Addicts have children. Typically they neglect them. their children end in up in care to begin their own downward spiral of drug use and addiction.

As a species we are, today, confronted with problems of unprecedented proportions, from economic to environmental and to human. The last thing we need to deal with them is addled brains.  As the American Professor, Bertha Madras has put it – the defence of our brains is the most pressing public health issue of the time.  The adolescent brain is most at risk. But it is the next generation who need their brains most to overcome hurdles of global proportions.

This motion should be opposed. Not to oppose it is to leave the human brain unprotected.


This argument was supplied by Kathy Gyngell, Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies



In favour of the motion – 87%

Against the motion          – 13%


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