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Legalising the Drugs Trade: Reducing Crime or Increasing Addiction?

For many legalising the trade in drugs would be unthinkable. But among those who have first-hand experience of combating drug misuse, there is a growing number who believe that legalisation not only offers the best means of taking organised crime out of the supply chain but would also save billions of pounds in policing costs. Other experts disagree, arguing that more accessible drugs will increase addiction, that the savings are overstated and that the drug gangs will simply undercut legal supplies in order to retain their grip on trafficking.

To what extent might legalising drugs reduce both organised and ‘petty’ crime; how would it save resources, including public money, and could they be better deployed in reducing drug abuse and its consequences; or, by destigmatising drugs and making them more readily available and affordable, would legalisation simply cause an explosion in dependency and its attending problems, displace criminal activities and/or create new outlets for criminals? How practical is the proposition: could the UK act unilaterally or would the whole world have to follow suit for legalsation to work? Who would gain and who would lose? Two leading experts in the field debate.

Danny Kushlik

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Danny Kushlick is Head of Policy and Communications at Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Before founding and becoming director of Transform in 1997 he had a variety of jobs in the drugs field, including as a probation partnership worker with Bristol Drugs Project, a drugs counsellor for the Big Issue Foundation, a prison drugs counsellor for Bath Area Drugs Advisory Service and drugs awareness trainer for NACRO. Danny is a member of the Executive Council of the International Harm Reduction Association and of the Advisory Council of the British Society of Criminology. He contested the Bristol West constituency as an independent candidate at the May 2010 general election.

Transform Drug Policy Foundation is a charitable think tank that seeks to draw public attention to the fact that drug prohibition itself is the major cause of drug-related harm to individuals, communities and nations, and should be replaced by effective, just and humane government control and regulation.

Transform has emerged in response to the increasingly apparent failings of current UK and international drug policy. As illegal drug use and the problems associated with illegal drug markets have continued to grow, Transform is providing new thinking on alternatives to the current enforcement-oriented regime of prohibition.

Neil McKeganey

Centre for Drug Misuse Research


Professor Neil McKeganey is the founding director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow and has directed its research programme since 1994. He has acted as an advisor to the UK Home Office, the World Health Organisation and the United States Department of Justice.

Prof McKeganey's most recent book, Controversies in Drug Policy and Practice, will be published by Palgrave later this year. He has recently published work on pre-teen drug misuse, the impact of parental drug use on children and drug users' views of methadone.

The Centre for Drug Misuse Research was established at the University of Glasgow in 1994 with the aim of conducting high quality, policy relevant research on the problem of drug misuse in Scotland. The Centre seeks to provide those working in the field with access to jargon-free, accurate, up to date and policy-relevant information on the nature of drug misuse and their effectiveness in tackling it.

The Centre’s rearchers work closely with colleagues in the other applied social science groups and in 2008 the Unit for the Study of Serious Organised Crime (USSOC) was established within the Centre with the aim of linking expertise between academia and law enforcement sectors.


Regulation - The Route to a Safer, Healthier Drug Policy

In 2002 the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee produced a report on UK drug policy.  Its final recommendation called on the Government to initiate a discussion at the UN “of alternative ways — including the possibility of legalisation and regulation — to tackle the global drugs dilemma”.  One of its members was our current Prime Minister.

Why would they have come to this apparently radical conclusion?  First, regulating drugs is not radical, it is the norm for most globalised trades and widespread human behaviours (especially those that involve risk); and second, the committee recognised that the global prohibition of production, supply and possession of non-medical drugs creates massive unintended consequences.

In 2008 the Executive Director of the UN office on Drugs and Crime admitted that the prohibition-based drug control system has created, at $320 billion a year, the second largest criminal market, displaced health policy with enforcement, caused the ‘balloon effect’ which moves the trade in drugs around the world but never eliminates it and created an environment where drug users are discriminated against and stigmatised.  Prohibition has helped to spread HIV and Hepatitis C throughout the world and undermined the governance of entire nation states.  Guinea Bissau became a narcostate almost overnight, Mexico has witnessed more than 20,000 deaths in turf wars in the last four years and Colombia and Afghanistan’s reliance on coca and opium production has continued unabated for decades.

So, has prohibition reduced use and misuse?  We know that there are fewer users of illegal than legal drugs, but in the UK heroin users have increased from a few thousand in the early 1970s when the Misuse of Drugs Act came in, to an estimated 300,000 today.  The evidence suggests that problem drug use is driven fundamentally by low levels of societal wellbeing and cannot be reduced by draconian legislation.  More broadly, an extensive World Health Organisation study concluded that "globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones."

We should end the global prohibition and replace it with a system of strict control and regulation for the most toxic and dependence inducing drugs and a lighter touch regulation for the less powerful drugs.  The frameworks already exist (and are detailed in our publication Blueprint for Regulation) with doctor’s prescription and pharmacy and licensed sales being the strictest models of control.

Would drug use or misuse rise?  Patterns of use will certainly change, but overall levels of harm would reduce and, operating a precautionary approach, we would review and alter policy in the light of the outcomes.

Transform’s position is based on the reality that hundreds of millions of people use drugs worldwide and that we need strict regulation and control to govern their production, supply and use.  In the meantime we call on those interested in evidence-based policy making to support the commissioning of Impact Assessments (comprehensive and transparent reviews) at national and international level to compare and contrast different policy regimes - tough enforcement, Portuguese-style decriminalisation and legal regulation.

Recent polls show that one in three of the UK population already support a shift from prohibition to strict control and regulation of heroin and between forty and seventy per cent for other drugs. Despite the prevailing orthodoxy, millions of us understand that the war on drugs is a war on some the most disadvantaged people on earth and that legal regulation affords the greatest opportunity for governments to intervene in the drug trade.

This change of regime is no cure-all: we have to address some deep underlying societal problems to reduce problematic drug use. But at least we can end the delusion that prohibition is helping.


Legalisation – A Recipe for Disaster

The case for legalising drugs is often made on the basis of the claimed failure of current drug laws. The fact that illegal drugs are widely available in most of our cities is taken as the strongest case for why they should be legalised. But within the UK less than one percent of the adult population has used heroin and little more than double that have used cocaine. The idea that drug use is omnipresent is a misrepresentation of a reality in which the most harmful drugs are actually used by only a tiny fraction of the population.

Those who favour legalisation often recommend that the government should develop a regulated market in drug supply, thereby both seizing control from the criminals and securing much needed tax revenue.

Claims for both outcomes are unconvincing. The experience of our existing regulated tobacco and alcohol markets show that the government would be quite unable to regulate a drug market. Both tobacco and alcohol are readily available, purchased and consumed by those under the age of sixteen. If the government were to take on the regulated supply of heroin and cocaine, we can expect these drugs also to become widely available to young people.

The prediction of a tax windfall is equally questionable. If the government were to levy a tax on heroin and cocaine, thereby inflating their price, it would simply find itself in a bidding war with the current illegal drug suppliers as to who could sell their drugs more cheaply and the hoped-for tax income would evaporate like morning mist.

But perhaps the strongest argument against legalisation is the possibility that it would lead to much wider drug use. Transform recently undertook an analysis of what a regulated drug market might look like and how much money it might save the government. Their report acknowledged that they could not predict how much drug use could grow under legalisation although their worst case scenario was a 100% increase in the current level. In the case of heroin that would mean an increase from under 1% to under 2%.

History suggests that that is very far from a worst case scenario.  In China at the time of the opium wars it was estimated that 10% of the population was addicted to opium. What would the UK look like if instead of the current estimate of around 330,000 heroin addicts there were three million?

The supporters of legalisation will claim that heroin use could simply not increase to that degree and that most of those who want to use it are already doing so. But that is to assume that if the drug were legal there would be few others who would want to use it who are currently deterred by the risk of prosecution. The fact is that heroin is a lot more pleasant to use in the early stages that alcohol or tobacco and infinitely more additive than either of these two drugs. In time under a legalised regime we could see a steady increase in the numbers of heroin users and addicts.

For some people, making drugs illegal seems like an unwanted intrusion into personal freedom. Drug use though is not a victimless crime, even when it may seem so to the drug user. In the UK some 400,000 children are being brought up in homes with addict parents. Legalisation of illegal drugs would not help those children; it would simply mean that their addicted parents now had a legal supplier to turn to.

Our drug laws are not perfect. They have unwanted and unintended consequences. They can make those who are prepared to take the risks of selling drugs very rich. But legalisation is no more the answer to that problem than removing household locks is the answer to domestic burglary. Our drug laws, like our laws in general, express the vision of the kind of society we wish to live within. I cannot see how that vision is improved by legalising all forms of drug use.


Neil is wrong.  The most harmful drugs are omnipresent and used by many millions.  Alcohol and tobacco kill 1.8 million and 5.4 million a year globally.  And, whilst per capita rates of cocaine and heroin use are comparatively low, their prohibition stimulates a gargantuan global illegal market and an HIV epidemic.  Government hypocrisy that allows footballers to advertise lager whilst criminalising those found in possession of heroin is simply discriminatory.

Bringing illegal drugs into regulatory regimes will reduce overall harm and could reduce the availability of drugs.  Pharmacists are vastly better controlled than the user/dealer with the reinforced door, pit bull and hand gun.  Rather than Neil’s doomsday scenario of many more heroin users, in a post-prohibition regulatory regime injectable opiates are likely to be less available than under prohibition.  When chaotic users are prescribed heroin in a clinical setting, they are far less likely to be involved in dealing to support their habits or encouraging injecting to a wider group of non-users.

Wider social factors lead individuals to produce and supply drugs and to become problematic users.  None of these are addressed by criminalising users, dealers and producers.  Most of the users in the criminal justice system are socially disadvantaged and marginalised.  It is cruel to add to their burdens through criminalisation and there is no evidence to show a deterrence effect.  Lastly, it is parochial and misguided to inflict global prohibition upon Colombia, Afghanistan and Guinea Bissau by attempting to criminalise our way out of a deep-seated lack of societal wellbeing.

Our drug laws do currently ‘express the vision of the kind of society we wish to live within’, but that vision ignores of the evidence of their abysmal failure.


Danny is calling for the UK government to engage in a form of regulated supply of heroin, cocaine, LSD, crack, cannabis and any other illegal drug you can think of. His principal argument is that our current restrictive drug laws have failed and that in their place we should have  “a system of strict control and regulation for the most toxic and dependence inducing drugs and a lighter touch regulation for the less powerful drugs”.

The trouble with his argument is that it glosses over the simple fact that all of the drugs he wants to legalise cause harm to those that use them. For Danny the harms associated with illegal drugs are principally to do with the fact that they are illegal. But these drugs don’t become harmful because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are harmful.

Aside from the harm, how acceptable is it for any government to engage in the supply and taxation of some of the most dependency inducing substances on the planet? It is of course claimed that our government is already doing as much in relation to alcohol and tobacco.

But heroin and cocaine are more addictive than alcohol and tobacco and, even if they were not, the fact that one or two addictive substances are generating tax income is not a justification to open up the flood-gates to every drug that is available now and in the future.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows that public attitudes towards illegal drugs are hardening with fewer people supporting legalisation now than in the past. Legalisation is not the answer to the drugs problem but it may well be a social policy in search of a disaster if it were implemented.


Neil is right that our drug laws ‘express the vision of the kind of society we wish to live within’, but they are increasingly falling into disrepute. As with legislation banning homosexuality and smoking in public, popular views change.  Neil represents a view that, whilst held by a majority now, is on its way out.  Prohibition’s days are numbered: alcohol prohibition in the US ended when it lost popular support and its maintenance became too expensive at a time of economic recession.

Despite Neil’s suggestion to the contrary, polls show that increasing numbers want substantive reform of drug policy. Only this week the editor of the British Medical Journal supported Transform’s called for legal regulation.  She joins the the Health Officers of British Columbia, the King County Bar Association, the late Mo Mowlam, Anatole Kaletsky (economics editor at The Times), The Economist and The Guardian.  The Chair of the Bar Council called for the decriminalisation of personal possession last week. He joins the International AIDS Society and 13,000+ signatories of the Vienna Declaration, as well as the governments of Portugal, The Netherlands, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, the Czech Republic and others.

Our drug laws do not reflect the world that one in three in the UK want to live in.  That group, growing in numbers and influence, recognises that prohibition kills, maims and degrades. They believe that government regulation and control will help promote a healthier, safer society.

Neil is right that government has badly regulated alcohol and tobacco.  But it has made a far worse job of regulating street cocaine and heroin, gifting the entire market to gangsters.  On both counts, we have done the equivalent of putting the Japanese in charge of international whaling stocks.  We must regulate drugs better, precisely as Neil says, because they are dangerous.

If we are serious about dealing with addiction, we must end the war on drugs and put in place a framework to regulate their production, supply and use.  Then we must develop social policies that reduce problematic drug use.  And we have a big clue in the work of Bruce Alexander’s 'Rat Park' experiment.  He demonstrated that rats in lab cages would self administer opiates to the point of near death but would stop if they were put in Rat Park, a large space to play, mate, socialise, rear families and the like.

Prohibition plays no part in promoting the kind of healthy behaviour that Rat Park demonstrated so clearly.  I’m sure that Neil and I would agree that this is where we should focus our attention.  But we absolutely disagree on prohibition’s contribution to societal wellbeing.


In this summing up I need to respond to Danny’s criticism of my position. He states that alcohol and tobacco are by far the most harmful drugs and cites the greater number of deaths associated with them compared to any of the illegal drugs. This is oversimplifying the argument. None of the illegal drugs are consumed with anything like the frequency of the legal drugs and for that reason alone it is inappropriate to compare death rates. Professor David Nutt, former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who has himself spoken in favour of legalisation, worked with colleagues to produce a rational ranking of drug harm. Within that schema, alcohol and tobacco were identified as the fifth and ninth most harmful drugs ranked compared to heroin and cocaine which were identified as the first and second most harmful. Danny’s argument is that because tobacco and alcohol are legal, somehow there is an ineluctable case to legalise everything else. But significantly he is unable to cite a single positive reason for why drugs should be legalised.

The gulf between Danny and myself lies between our different views of drug harms. For Danny the harms associated with illegal drug use can be largely ignored in favour of reducing the harms associated with prohibition.

There is though a moral dimension underpinning our contrasting positions. Danny wants the government to supply and regulate every current illegal drug and every drug that may be developed in the future. I don’t think that it is possible or morally right for our government to be so deeply involved in supplying some of the most dependence inducing substances and I fail to see how making those drugs more widely available assists the hundreds of thousands of people who live in a state of poverty and social exclusion.

Regulation, for those who favour legalisation, provides the clothes in which they dress their argument for the wider availability of illegal drugs. If the government were to manage a tightly regulated regime of drug supply, as Danny seems to favour, the unregulated drug supply would simply be left in the hands of the criminals. Regulation then is the sugar coated pill for a potentially disastrous drug policy.

And what in the end would society offer those who in a regulated drug market had become addicted to the substances the government was making so widely available? In all probability it would be another addictive substance because under a liberal, legalised policy it is abstinence not drug use that becomes the radical idea.