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Dopey logic of a legaliser


IN a recent article in the Times, the Economist policy editor Emma Duncan breathlessly recounts her dalliance some 20 years ago with cocaine, concluding that our drug laws are illiberal, illogical, and do more harm than good.

Reporting that a journalist has used cocaine hardly ranks as newsworthy unless, of course, the journalist has gone on to occupy high office, is seeking even higher office, and has responsibility for the UK drug laws as a result. The claim that our drug laws are illiberal is hardly a crime in itself since you may also ask yourself what positive effect drugs consumption has generated other than the personal pleasure of individual users. Duncan cites the John Stuart Mill principle that individual freedoms should be curbed only when one’s behaviour has a negative impact on the freedoms of others. It is questionable, however, whether drug consumption should be seen as something that does not limit others’ freedoms when one hears the heartbreaking accounts of children brought up in addict households.

It is in terms of the harms of our drug laws that Duncan comes most unstuck. The only harms of cocaine use she cites are those of verbal incontinence, boring people you converse with, and becoming self-centred. Nothing at all, then, about addiction in Duncan’s assessment. I suggest that placing one’s continued use of cocaine above all other concerns including one’s own health, the health and welfare of others, one’s job and civic and family responsibilities, may be a bigger deal than the minor problems that Duncan has listed. But there you have it. Don’t expect an audit of actual harm from those supporting legalisation. They will trumpet the value of evidence-based drugs policies and then ignore the inconvenient evidence of serious harm.

Duncan’s pro-drugs legalisation piece sits under the headline that our drug laws do more harm than good. You might have thought that a respected journalist working on a respected magazine (as the Economist certainly is) would make a case for relative harm by considering both sides of the equation i.e. the good that our drug laws do and the bad. But in that you would be disappointed. Duncan’s assessment of our drug laws is more akin to sloganeering than sober assessment – it is an assertion supported in her piece solely by a few examples of harmful consequences of the imposition of our drug laws, chief of which seems to be the absurd proposal that our laws are forcing people to use impure drugs because we are not allowing pure drugs to be sold on the streets. That is a bit like saying householders are causing burglars to injure their hands when they break down our doors as a result of locking their homes at night. Governments, by imposing our drug laws, do not force anybody to take any drugs – rather they are giving a powerful signal against such drug use in the first place.

For Duncan it seems the nirvana of widely available government-regulated drug supply is ready and waiting for implementation by those brave enough to take that step. Two things to say about that. First, our existing legal and regulated tobacco and alcohol industries hardly give one confidence that our government, or any other government, could effectively manage a regulated market in a whole host of other, previously illegal, drugs. Second, next time Duncan has a medical consultation, meets her children’s teachers, purchases items in a store or simply goes about her daily life, she might want to check in her drug-free nirvana if the person examining her, assessing her, conversing with her and exercising important judgments about her, has recently shot up his or her favourite drug. Maybe a world of regulated drug supply would deliver us a few further problems that our current drug laws are actually protecting us from. Just a thought when the next tranche of twenty-something journalists lean forward to snort up the proffered cocaine.

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Neil McKeganey
Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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