TOPIC GUIDE: Drugs Policy

"The UK should liberalise its drugs policy"

PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015

AUTHOR: Jason Smith

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In October 2014, a government commissioned report was published which suggested that tough, prohibitive laws on drugs did not result in lower instances of drug taking, reigniting the debate about drug policy in the UK [Ref: Guardian]. Over the past 10 years there has been growing dissatisfaction with current legislation and practices designed to curb the use of illegal drugs [Ref: Guardian], with American states and some European countries relaxing their drug policy, for instance, making marijuana available on prescription for medical use [Ref: NCSL]. Some who favour relaxed drug laws have hailed this alternative thinking as a potential victory for civil liberties, arguing that we should be able to choose which substances we consume without interference from the law [Ref: Drug Policy Alliance]. Opponents disagree, and suggest that the debate is a fundamentally moral one, a question of societal values, with columnist Kathy Gyngell arguing that any liberalisation will normalize drug taking: “It is not a battle about basic freedoms – far from it. Drugs enslave” [Ref: Guardian]. With this in mind, should drugs remain illegal, and would liberalising drugs policy in the UK send out the wrong message to the young, and encourage people to try drugs without fear of prosecution? Or is a more liberal approach to drug laws the way forward?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the social costs of drugs?
Since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 drugs policy in the UK has been continually debated [Ref: Wikipedia]. According to the United Nations, in 2012, only 5 per cent of the global population took recreational drugs and only 0.6 per cent were addicts [Ref: UNODC], so why change the law for the benefit of such a small cohort of people some ask [Ref: Prospect Magazine]? The effect of a more liberal drugs policy in the UK would be profoundly negative on society critics argue, as: “There needs to be a proper stigma about drugs to stop people experimenting with them”, and because it would send the message to young people that drugs are OK [Ref: Daily Mail]. Drug misuse is the cause of around 2,000 deaths a year in the UK, and some half a million worldwide [Ref: Telegraph]. About 330,000 people in England are dependent on heroin and/or crack cocaine and many pay for their drugs through crime, in an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £13.9billion a year [Ref: Telegraph]. Drawing upon the relationship between morality and drugs, critic of revising legalisation Theodore Dalrymple, claims that any liberalisation of drug policy would have far reaching and undoubtedly negative effects on society. He argues that: “We lose remarkably little by not being permitted to take drugs” and rejects the notion that society would be any better by giving people the freedom to do so, because: “…when such a narrowly conceived freedom is made the touchstone of public policy, a dissolution of society is bound to follow” [Ref: City Journal]. For opponents, put simply: drugs are extremely harmful for individuals and society, which is why they should remain illegal [Ref: Guardian]. However, for advocates of reform such as Russell Brand, the social cost of current policies puts the lives of drug users and addicts at risk because: “If drugs are illegal, people who use drugs are criminals”, resulting in vulnerable people being imprisoned, meaning that ultimately they fail to get the help that they need. Furthermore, all prohibition achieves is: “ unregulated, criminal controlled, sprawling global mob economy” [Ref: Guardian] which, he argues, has catastrophic effects on both drug users and society more broadly. From this perspective reform is vital, so that drug use is treated as a health rather than criminal matter - a view Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg shares [Ref: Independent]. Some legalisation advocates such as Sam Bowman are also unmoved by arguments about the harm drugs do, and he argues that if it is really about harm to health and society then why not ban smoking and alcohol, both of which have acknowledged negative effects [Ref: Conservative Home]?

Drug policy around the world
Supporters of drug reform take policy around the world as an example of what the UK should be doing.  For instance, Uruguay [Ref: CNN], as well as the American states of Colorado [Ref: Huffington Post] and Washington [Ref: Fox News] have recently legalised the possession and use of marijuana. As a result, Colorado raised over $2m in taxes on recreational marijuana in its first month of legalisation, which increases to $3.5m if you include sales for medical purposes [Ref: Home Office]. The first $40m is being used to build new schools, while further public health projects, youth prevention programmes and substance abuse treatments are planned. Current estimates from the state governor’s office put potential annual tax revenues at more than $100m [Ref: Prospect]. Pro-reform campaigners also evidence Portugal, which abolished all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs in 2001 as an example of decriminalising working [Ref: New York Times]. Figures show that between 2002-2006 the use of hitherto illegal drugs by teenagers had declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users had halved, and whilst the chances of those between the ages of 15-64 using drugs in their lifetime actually rose from 7.8% to 12% between 2001 and 2007, this figure has since fallen to pre 2001 levels [Ref: EMCDDA]. But others are less convinced by the positive effects of decriminalisation. One commentator argues that in Colorado, regular high school drug use has leapt from 19% to 30% since the State legalised medical marijuana in 2009 for adults - as well as teens using higher potency products, concluding that: “Students don’t seem to realise that there is anything wrong with having the pot … they act like having marijuana was an ordinary thing and no big deal” [Ref:]. Opponents also cite a pilot scheme in the London Borough of Lambeth between 2001-2002, in which cannabis was decriminalised, resulting in hospital admissions due to hard drugs use more than doubling in the area [Ref:Telegraph]. The morality of the state taxing drugs and controlling supply, as is the case in Uruguay, is also questioned in some quarters - how, these critics say, can we permit governments to gather taxes from drugs which cause human misery, and business to amass profits from substances which can induce mental illness [Ref: Prospect]?

Has the War on drugs failed?
First coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the so called ‘war on drugs’ is seen by many as unwinnable. Philosopher Raymond Tallis suggests that: “The harm caused by illegal drugs….is largely as consequence of their illegality” [Ref: The Times], noting that criminalising drugs has had catastrophic effects: causing the price to skyrocket, the prison population to rise, and the residents of drug producing countries becoming the victims of cartel violence – citing Mexico, whose American supported drug crackdown since 2006 has resulted in over 60,000 deaths [Ref: The Times]. In this respect, campaigners claim that decriminalisation would remove the financial incentive for criminal gangs to sell drugs, but critics disagree. Instead, they argue that drug laws should be enforced more stringently in the UK, because the aim has to be preventing people from taking drugs in the first place. Peter Hitchens insists that drug taking is a moral issue, and that imprisoning users for breaking the law: “...may well be tragic for them, but their examples will…save many others from much worse fates” [Ref: Daily Mail]. It is the lack of effective deterrents for drug users which is to blame for organised crime and violence – not the war on drugs as some suggest, and Hitchens concludes by stating that: “If people were scared away from these drugs, by effective prosecution of possession, the trade would die“ [Ref: Daily Mail]. Moreover, as one commentator puts it: “Saying the war against drugs is unwinnable, is like saying the war against burglary is unwinnable, and we should open our doors. Absurd” [Ref: Telegraph]. So, should drugs remain illegal in the UK for the good of society? Would giving up the war on drugs be a dangerous step in the wrong direction and send a worrying moral message, or should we admit that prohibition has failed and explore alternative options? Should the UK liberalise its drug policy?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

World Drug Report 2014

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime United Nations June 2014


Shhhh….a lot of top people believe in drug reform

Hugo Rifkind The Times 4 November 2014

Ministers high on their war on drugs need a speedy cure

Simon Jenkins Guardian 1 November 2014

Illegal drugs should legalised

Sam Bowman Conservative Home 22 February 2014

Drugs kill. Truth and reason are the victims

Professor Raymond Tallis The Times 11 December 2012


No quick fix

The Times 31 October 2014

Legalising drugs would bring not freedom but enslavement

Kathy Gyngell Guardian 20 February 2014

Why we shouldn’t legalise drugs

Alexander Linklater Prospect Magazine 1 November 2010


Drugs: breaking the cycle

House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Ninth Report 1 December 2014

Drugs: international comparators

Home Office 30 October 2014

The duel: Should the UK legalise drugs

Molly Meacher & Peter Hitchens Prospect Magazine 27 March 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Is the war on drugs making things worse?

Peter Hitchens & Johan Hari Daily Mail 3 January 2015

State medical marijuana laws

National Council of State Legislators 13 November 2014

What happens if you decriminalise drugs?

Tom Chivers Telegraph 31 October 2014

We should go to war on drugs not addicts

Nick Clegg Independent 30 October 2014

Why I Changed Careers to Legalize a Drug I Don’t Use

Amos Irwin Huffington Post 9 September 2014

What Science Says About Marijuana

Phillip F Boffey New York Times 30 July 2014

The drugs (policies) don’t work

Alice Moran YouGov 16 June 2014

Decriminalising all drugs

Joao Castro-Branco Goulao New York Times 17 March 2014

60% back royal commission on drugs

Harris MacLeod YouGov 14 December 2013

World drug report 2013

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime May 2013

Get tough on drugs, don’t legalise them

Simon Heffer Telegraph 17 December 2012

High Society

Peter Hitchens Spectator 13 October 2012

Drug legalisation? We need it like a hole in the head

Melanie Phillips Melanie 17 November 2011

Britain should not make the same mistakes a Portugal

Manuel Pinto Cuelho World Federation Against Drugs 3 October 2010

Legalising drugs would only make matters worse

Ian Oliver Independent 19 August 2008

Dont legalise drugs

Theodore Dalrymple City Journal 1997

Q&A with Christian Thurstone

University of Colorado


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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