Debate: Should Class A drugs be legalised?

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Proposition – Andrew Laithwaite

It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that people should be free to pursue whatever pastimes may take their fancy; whatever floats their metaphorical boat. Naturally however, such freedom must have its limits. It is the opinion that such limits are flouted where individuals take recreational drugs of the ‘Class A’ variety which underlies much of the opposition to the legalization of these substances (complemented by a decidedly-middle-class squeamishness towards the idea of people having too much fun).

One potential argument in support of this opinion appeals to the negative health effects associated with use, and the government’s purported duty to coercively protect individuals from themselves. People can be very silly, and should be stopped from doing such silly things that threaten their health, even if – in their supreme silliness – they think that they want to do them. Peculiar though, that this should be an argument that stops short of calling for the criminalization of the consumption of fatty foods, or of sun-bathing, or of the various sports that involve participants hitting one-another repeatedly (there are many). Maybe the difference is that all of these activities are judged to pose a much lesser threat to the ‘objective’ health interests of the individual than the practice of indulging in the notorious substances of the Class A crew. But if this is the case, why not criminalize suicide? (Again).

This question should serve to highlight just how ridiculous this line of reasoning is. The value attached to one’s health, relative to other activities and states of being, is subjective. Other people cannot be seen to possess the right to stick their nose in and tell me, or anyone else, that we’re wrong to value things differently to them, and insodoing force us to do things according to their way. Not everybody is quite so boring.

Perhaps a better case can be made for the enduring criminalization of Class A substances on the basis that, though people should be allowed to jeopardize their health if they so wish, they should not make themselves a burden to others in the process. But again, the inconsistent application of this reasoning in the current legal system shines through, as conspicuously as the presence of a burqa at an EDL rally. As far as financial costs are concerned, taxpayers already fork out millions for healthcare associated with lifestyle choices. Diabetes, predominantly caused by obesity, currently costs the NHS close to £10 billion a year, alongside a conservative estimate of £3 billion per year for drink-related health problems.

More shocking is the fact that the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is costing taxpayers approximately £16 billion per year. Yet it’s been a complete failure, and much like prohibition of alcohol in the States in the 1920s, it is destined to be so for ever more. As such, considerable money is still expended on healthcare for Class A drug users. It is therefore credible to assume that the British government would save an inordinate amount of money through legalization, especially when one considers the potential opportunities for taxing these substances in the same way that alcohol is. The only thing that the government is succeeding in doing with the ‘War on Drugs’ is violently shooting itself in the financial foot.

But what about other costs to society – namely the violence and crime that would surely come as an inevitable result of legalization? Concerned individuals might picture scenes of anarchy and lawlessness that would make Saturday night Camera look like a tea party, with crackheads running wild, mugging grannies and torching cars.

This hardly seems a credible mental picture. Where they exist, the direct links between taking various Class A drugs and violent behaviour are far less glaring than the link existing between violence and the consumption of alcohol. A statistic cited by the group Alcohol Concern showed that in the UK between 1999 and 2001, 45% arrested for assault tested positive for alcohol at the time of arrest. Meanwhile, 58% of those imprisoned for rape in 2003 had also been drinking in the six hours prior to the incident. That we are willing to accept these costs and not risk the more marginal ones associated with the use of Class A substances is a case of ludicrous inconsistency.

In any case, the overwhelming bulk of violence associated with Class A drugs comes as a result of their illegality, as opposed to their use. Think of the addict who mugs and steals to find the money to pay for his habit – such an action is only really made necessary by the context of the horrifically inflated prices for the substances he takes, and which he will continue to take regardless of their legal status.

Moreover, the criminalization of Class A substances is itself responsible for unparalleled suffering, death and destruction across the globe. Countless civilians are caught in the crossfire of gangs fighting for control of the illicit trade across Latin America and the so-called Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent of south-east and central Asia respectively; gangs which use their ludicrous profits to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to manipulate the state. Penniless farmers in Afghanistan have one of their only roads out of poverty – their poppy fields – destroyed by the same Western soldiers who share responsibility for the destruction that drove them to grow the crops in the first place. Rebel groups are financed, and destructive civil wars sustained through the drugs trade, and international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are literally able to make a killing.

Criminalization is the most significant crime against humanity of the modern era, and like all such crimes, it is our duty to do what we can to stop it. The image of a heroin addict injecting himself to death is not necessarily a particularly pleasant one to sustain. But how images of the tremendous suffering of innocents currently caused by the criminalization of such behaviour can be stomached any more comfortably is a truly tragic mystery.

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Opposition – Amber Tallon

The answer to the UK’s drug problem today is not the legalisation of all Class A drugs, but a change of attitude through education.

It is true that laws directly addressing issues rarely work. Alcohol prohibition in America, the one child policy in China, censorship laws across the world – when a person’s rights are restricted to the extent that they feel trapped in their own country, they rebel against it, so a zero-tolerance attitude to drugs is not the answer.

The effect of education can be seen in the case of smoking. The number of smokers has been in decline in recent years, because of government pressure on smoking regulations with the health warnings on cigarette packets and anti-smoking schemes on the NHS. This kind of attention to drug-related problems is needed desperately before there is any discussion on their legalisation, because, unfortunately, the “taboo-topic” attitude to Class A drugs in this country is holding us back.

It is not “middle class squeamishness” to acknowledge that there are a large number of addicts in society, that many of today’s youth are exposed to drugs at quite a young age, and that the vast majority of people out there with an addiction are too ashamed to admit it.

In terms of education, what people need is the realism that comes with drug addiction. Rather than a cursory school assignment in which each group quickly pulls together a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the pros and cons of every Class A drug, young people need to see the reality of the damage that Class A drugs can do: people who have been forced to inject heroin between their toes because they simply cannot find another vein in their arm; individuals who have resorted to crime to acquire the money for their next fix; and addicts who have gone through the grueling and excruciating rehabilitation process. It is not just the scientific health risks and plain facts which need to be drummed into people, but also the harm drugs can do to those around you and to the wider society, and the emotional and psychological issues which inevitably accompany any addiction. Education has not gone far enough in teaching young people about the dangers of drugs beyond the black and white facts in a text book, and this has to change.

The immediate health risks do need to be considered as well. Class A drugs are much more likely to kill you after one try, whether through an overdose or an allergic reaction, and the risk is much higher than with substances like smoking or drinking. Class A drugs generally have more detrimental effects, like paranoia, panic and heart attacks, and the means of taking Class A drugs do their own irreparable harm, snorting, for example, which severely damages the structure of the nose, and injection, which destroys the veins. The role of the law is to provide some barrier between the public and these harmful substances. There is a reason why alcohol caused around 8,724 deaths in the UK in 2007 whereas ecstasy amounted to only 44 deaths in England and Wales in 2008, with heroin contributing to 897 deaths, still a worryingly high figure considering its illegal status. The legality of alcohol has made it socially acceptable. What is to stop the same thing happening to Class A drugs in the long-term? It’s incredibly easy to say, in theory, that health warnings and quantity regulation will stop Class A drugs from becoming a problem, but this is much harder to control in reality. Many Class A drugs are extremely addictive, and the majority of those arguing for their legalisation underestimate the incredible strength it takes to resist such an addictive substance, and the lengths that many addicts will go to get their next fix.

Concerning government’s role, the argument that legalising Class A drugs will remove them from the influence of gangs simply will not stand, because as soon as supply is restricted and regulated, a course of action the government would likely take to prevent drug abuse in the event of legalisation, people who need their fix will still resort to the black market if they have to, where drugs are of a much poorer quality and the possibility of debt puts people at an even greater risk from gang violence.

As well as this, the government would be unable to sell Class A drugs cheaply, for moral reasons if nothing else, to prevent them from becoming a staple in people’s lives. This would therefore leave a window open for poorer quality drugs, such as anthrax-contaminated heroin, supplied at a cheaper rate underground. While there is a demand for something that is difficult or expensive to acquire, there will be a black market to provide it. Period.

As I am sure you can therefore see, the way forward is education, not legalisation.