The states of Colorado and Washington in the United States of America have passed legislation to allow recreational cannabis use. In Colorado it is now available for sale to people over 21. This is an interesting real-life experiment, and the rest of the world needs to observe and take note.
There have always been arguments on both sides of the debate as to whether legalising currently illegal drugs would be a good idea and, if so, which drugs. This debate goes beyond ideological considerations based on what we think about these drugs. It is more important to look at effects on individuals and on society. There are endless arguments over what the outcome of legalisation would be. Does legalisation mean that more people will end up as users and addicts? Or are these fears unfounded? Will crime be reduced by taking control of drugs out of the hands of unscrupulous drug barons? According to government statistics, drug-related crime costs the UK £13.3 billion a year. And that says nothing of the human cost – the injuries and deaths from drug-related violence or from taking impure drugs. Then there is the argument that people should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies.
I don’t know exactly what would happen in this country if some or all drugs were legalised, and I doubt if anyone truly does, even if they claim to. But that’s why I think that what is happening in Colorado and Washington is a good thing for us and the rest of the world.
The Netherlands already allow cannabis in their coffee shops, and looking at these statistics from 2012, drug use does not tend to be higher than in the UK. It depends on the specific drug, but if we look at just cannabis, the prevalence in the Netherlands is higher than in Northern Ireland, slightly higher than England and Wales combined, and lower than in Scotland. Other drug use (amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine) is generally slightly lower in the Netherlands than it is in England, Wales and Scotland, although higher than in Northern Ireland.
There certainly appear to be some benefits to the Dutch model. To quote from this article:
“For example, in Sweden, 52 percent of marijuana users report that other drugs are available from their usual cannabis source. In the Netherlands, only 14 percent of marijuana users can get other drugs from their cannabis source, according to European drug monitors. This is largely because the vast majority of cannabis users buy from coffee shops.
“In addition, the country has virtually eliminated injecting drug use as a transmission of HIV and enjoys the lowest rate of problem drug use in Europe.”
At the very least, it certainly doesn’t appear to have caused all Hell to break loose, and I don’t expect it to in Colorado or Washington either. We need to be more scientific in our legislation, and real-life experiments like this are exactly what we all need to inform our future policies. It’s no good simply saying “Drugs are bad!” and closing our eyes to real life. Fortunately for us, we can watch what happens in Colorado and Washington from a distance.
But the debate isn’t just about cannabis. What about ecstasy, cocaine, even heroin? There are many people who think we should legalise all drugs and wipe illegal drug dealers off the streets once and for all.
I don’t think we need to rush into this. For one thing, legalising all drugs in one sweeping change will make it very difficult for us to tease apart what has gone wrong and what had gone right. Some legalisation may work, whereas some may not. It is also possible that something could work in one country but not another. But observing what happens in America and what has happened in the Netherlands is a lot better than pure theorising. We need to observe impartially, and the results should inform policy.
Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sands. Now is the time to open our eyes. It’s time for open discussion and debate led by the politicians. They need to be talking about this. It would appear that some MPs are after a sensible discussion but the Prime Minister, David Cameron, appears to be less interested.
I don’t want to be seen as simply sitting on the fence on this. While I clearly think we should use the evidence where it’s available, I’ve not come to this without any opinions of my own. I do think that certain drugs, such as cannabis, would probably be better off legalised, although obviously with restrictions. Alcohol and tobacco products haven’t caused society’s collapse, and I don’t expect cannabis to either. Once cannabis and other drugs of a similar level are legalised, we should look at harder drugs.
But now that the two states in America are running the experiment for us, it makes sense to hold off for a bit to see what happens. If it is a success, then legalise cannabis. And then it would be time to start looking at other drugs. If no other country does a trial first, then I think it would be right for the UK to lead the way. Not all drugs at once, but a gradual introduction of drugs in increasing order of “hardness”, according to what medical experts tell us, and with appropriate restrictions. On that subject, we certainly need to conduct more trials into the safety of drugs. In 2012 there was a one-off trial on ecstasy done with a television audience in mind, but tests like this should be run-of-the-mill for scientists. We need to have an open mind, and if it does turn out that ecstasy is about as risky as horse riding, then so be it.