Opinion: The legalisation of drugs – let’s not take the line of least resistance

drugsIt’s 1977…. a hot summer evening in Chicago (no – this is not the start of a Raymond Chandler novel). I’m getting a lift back from an outer suburb to the city which takes around an hour on the freeway. It’s late. The driver is going illegally fast. He’s desperate to get home he tells me – so he can smoke some dope. I am desperate to get back in one piece.  I suppose the only thing that might have made his driving worse is if he had actually already smoked the stuff. But that’s what addiction does – it makes people a bit desperate. And make no mistake, cannabis can be addictive.

I know the current argument goes that the war on drugs isn’t working so let’s decriminalise, or even legalise, drugs for personal use, maybe even provide drugs from state-approved outlets, to cut our the dealers and ensure quality-controlled products? And if there turn out to be problems, we’ll just treat the subsequent addiction as a health problem – because we’re compassionate people.

This seems, at best, a strange sort of logic. Shall we decriminalise every crime we are struggling to get the better of?  What about decriminalising burglary with its notoriously poor detection rates? That’s a bit ridiculous. Or what about giving up on tax evasion – we’re not exactly winning the war there! These may not be perfect analogies, but I hope you see where I’m going with this.  Just because something is difficult it doesn’t mean you give up trying to sort the problem out.

Also, if substances that have been illegal for decades are suddenly legalised, there will surely be people who think they are safer now ….when, actually, the cannabis available on the streets today is far more lethal than in the 1960s.

Endless studies have linked cannabis with psychosis, memory loss and lower educational achievement.  I know, I used to see the medical press cuttings coming across my desk every day!  Do we really want to decriminalise, or even legalise, substances that do this to the brain – especially when the health risks are greatest in young people?

The UN International Narcotics Control Board is concerned. They said “if currently controlled substances were regulated as alcohol is in many countries, more people would use them and become addicted.” Drug use has notably gone up in every US state where they have legalised marijuana. Also, with legalisation, come subtle opportunities for marketing and financial gain – even state taxation (one way of getting the deficit down I suppose).

Decriminalisation or legalisation would almost certainly lead to more drugs being smoked or injected, more people becoming addicts, a rise in the cost of treatment to the NHS – and an increase in the sum total of misery somewhere down the line.

Although prison is not be the right place for people who break our current drug possession laws, we should strongly resist reforms which result in more people becoming drug users and more people becoming drug sufferers – even one more person.


* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • David Faggiani 17th Nov '14 - 12:18pm

    I politely disagree with you Judy. I agree with most decriminalisation and indeed legalisation efforts, and I think your argument culminating in predicting “an increase in the sum total of misery somewhere down the line” is perhaps a little vague and scare-mongering, especially when it comes to the gains in efficiency, quality, taxation and yes, ideals and principle that stand to be achieved! I am very glad this is getting seriously debated though, on LDV and elsewhere, and I am sure there would be wider public appetite for that debate.

  • Richard Dean 17th Nov '14 - 12:22pm

    Interesting anecdotal evidence from Chicago, though I observe that there was no causal relationship between driving fast and smoking cannabis. Anyone can be desperate to get home for something. A cigarette, a child’s birthday, …

    I used to smoke cannabis a fair amount. I never had trouble going without for a while, or eventually stopping. It wasn’t addictive for me. Maybe it might have damaged my liver a bit, but the liver’s ok now. It didn’t damage my work performance, and may even have helped make me a nicer person.

    I also used to smoke tobacco a fair amount. Giving up for a day was a major struggle. I had several tries at stopping, only succeeded eventually from being on a workboat for six weeks and no one wanted to give me their fags. It damaged my concentration, made me less productive, and didn’t improve my mood one little bit.

  • Well argued Judy, good to see a common sense argument against, on here. I was beginning to loose some faith following comments on a recent Forum post I started!

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Nov '14 - 12:29pm

    This incident of speeding was committed in a time and a place where the substance was already illegal, and that in itself did not stop this from happening. Also the driver was breaking the law for speeding so he should have been caught and convicted for that.
    I think we should watch what happens in places where drugs have been legalised. There is an argument that I find persuasive that by virtue of these substances being illegal that other crimes are committed by addicts to feed their habit because they cannot seek treatment for their addictions and admit to their “crimes”. It is on this basis that I support liberalisation. However my judgement is based on evidence rather than ideology, and if new evidence shows I am wrong then I could change my mind.

  • And how many in Chicago are jailed on dope charges to go into the corporate slave system the US calls justice? And what colour the majority incarcerated? It was the US who demanded it was made illegal here during the war so the US servicemen would not expect legalisation when returning to US shores. All drug laws are racially driven!

  • Adam Corlett 17th Nov '14 - 1:40pm

    There’s a lot I disagree with there, but I’d mainly like to argue with the underlying logic at the end. Is the implication that we should support anything that stops even one person using (or at least suffering from) any drug?

    Should we not recognise that the actions we take to try and achieve that can cause harm too? Whether that be imprisonment, criminal records, pushing people into crime and prostitution, tens of thousands of people dead in Latin America, a huge criminal trade, forced detention camps and executions for drug users, unregulated quality, deforestation, disrespect of the police, wasted public spending, and lost liberty… Is there really no limit to what we should tolerate to stop even one person ingesting particular chemicals? As with anti-terrorism, it’s quite clearly possible to go too far for too little, and it’s one of the roles of our party to make that case.

    I know it’s cliché, but is the implication also that we should criminalise smoking, drinking… skiing, unhealthy eating… anything to prevent harm to health?

    On the rest: 1) decriminalisation at least does not lead to increased use – you don’t need to guess that it “almost certainly” would – there’s plenty of evidence (including the international comparison that Lib Dems secured) that the severity of the law regarding personal use does not affect the level of drug use. It does seem likely that legalisation might be different but, 2) regulation would allow us to make drugs safer, including steering people towards safer cannabis, addressing your point (though saying cannabis is now “far more lethal” is frankly ridiculous). 3) It may be that even if we can reduce the use of some drugs, that is only achieved by increasing the use of some other drug: there is evidence, for example, that legalising medical cannabis means lower use of alcohol and in this way actually reduces the number of fatal car crashes.

  • George Potter 17th Nov '14 - 2:13pm

    An anecdote about one person’s bad driving habits (which is not proof of an addiction) is completely irrelevant to the bulk of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that cannabis is not addictive – assuming of course that you’re talking about it being used by those aged 18 and over as opposed to say 12 year olds whose brains are still developing.

    And since no one is proposing, to my knowledge, to legalise cannabis for children then the entire premise of this article is scientific and medically illiterate nonsense.

  • Mark Thompson
    Excellent response

  • Steve Coltman 17th Nov '14 - 5:26pm

    Judy’s article is supporting the status quo. She should take a long hard look at what the status quo actually is. The illegal trade in Heroin does not just involve criminals but finances terrorists also. What is going on in Mexico with the cartels that control the cocaine business is frightening, brutal beyond belief. The turnover of the Mexican cartels is approaching the same size as the UK’s defence budget. You can bribe, or assassinate, a lot of judges, politicians and police officers with that sort of money (and they do). The status quo is an intolerable state of affairs, but getting politicians to even contemplate the smallest changes seems anything but the line of least resistance.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Nov '14 - 6:09pm

    I have felt like a lone voice in the pro war on drugs camp on LDV and have winced when Nick Clegg has talked about teaming up with South American countries recently to call for legalisation. So I thank Judy Abel for this article.

    I would say one thing though: I am pro legalising marijuana. I just don’t think it makes sense to have alcohol legal and cannabis not.

    I’m quitting drinking again after spending three years off and having a few months back on. I remembered why I quit and I don’t think we should be encouraging some sort of drug culture.


  • Excellent post Mark T.

  • @Mark Thompson
    “the ability for users to be able to seek help without fear of being arrested and/or criminalised would overall reduce harm – indeed that is precisely what has happened in Portugal”

    Doesn’t that already happen here? Can British addicts not use services like the following without fear of being dobbed in to the police?


    I happened to walk past one of their buildings the other week, an enormous glass-fronted place I hadn’t seen before on Oldham Street. They must be treating an awful lot of addicts, and have a lot of money with which to do it.

    I’m interested in what figures you have to justify your assertions that the Portugal experiment is the raving success you say it is – particularly in comparison with the UK (which, despite liberal complaints about our “failed” policies, has seen drug use falling for years, and has drugs treatment services that are admired around the world according to the recent Home Office report). The man who designed the Portugese policy hardly gives it a ringing endorsement when he sums it up by saying, “We haven’t found some miracle cure. Decriminalization hasn’t made the problem worse.”


    According to this article, Portugal had a much worse drugs problem than Britain when decriminalisation was first introduced. Thirteen years on, they only claim not to have made matters worse. An evidence-based example for us to follow?

  • Daniel Caute 17th Nov '14 - 10:43pm

    Burglary is a crime because it is wrong to take what is not rightfully yours.
    Cannabis consumption is not a crime because it is a peaceful, harmless activity with no victim.
    Governments have been persecuting innocent cannabis users and suppressing the medical research into the benefits of cannabis for decades and people like you, with your confused, ill-informed arguments, really should be ashamed at all the harm you have caused and continue to cause.

  • The problem in citing the INCB is that they’re set up with the mandate to restrict psychoactives, and therefore reject any evidence to prove that the contrary may be more effective. Their attitude to medicinal use of scheduled drugs just goes to prove this: if it was up to the INCB, they’d have heroin addicts homeless on the street rather than getting help on the NHS.

  • Judy, it’s not 1977; no wonder you’re confused!

    A lot of people have had a lot of fun doing drugs. Some of the recreational users I know are around the same age as Judy, having successfully raised a family and kept down a job for the past 30-40 years – they haven’t suffered from the consequences she described in her litany of fear. That’s not to say some don’t misuse drugs and wind up addicted, but most just had a really good time. That’s why people do it and why they’ll continue to do so, regardless of legal status. I think most people understand that it’s very unlikely you’ll get caught using drugs, so the sanction is unimportant – it doesn’t act as a deterrent.

    Judy talks about weed like it’s heroin, and that makes me think she’s got little understanding of the distinctions between these substances. Meanwhile, the kids are smoking the datura the council’s planting in the parks, which is fine because that’s legal and not at all as bad as that lethal cannabis! It’s this sort of thinking that ensures we continue to producing rising drug fatalities; it’s illiberal, illogical and needs to be sent back to 1977 where it belongs.

  • Our drug laws aren’t equivalent to other laws. We ordinarily criminalise actions which directly harmful to other people. but criminalising drugs was done in an attempt to reduce the social harms that are associated with their use. The strategy has been an unmitigated failure.

    Yes, cannabis has got stronger and more dangerous under prohibition. That’s a failure of our drug laws. Legalisation would allow us to take control and bring in proper labelling and possibly strength restrictions.

    We can’t carry on wasting £15bn per year on a failed drugs regime when there are such huge pressures on the public finances.

  • David Raynes 18th Nov '14 - 10:30am

    A very sound article.

    The LibDems are going down a political, vote losing, dead end, by espousing drug legalization.

    There are of course “victims”, the users, afflicted and addicted are “victims. Society (because we have a socialized medical and personal support system, is a victim. The unborn, affected by drug damage in the womb are victims. Employers are “victims”, family and those around the user or addict are victims. (Just try living with an addict-to anything). All the world wide evidence is, that where there are social or religious taboos against use of any particular drug (including those most often legal elsewhere) there is much less total harm.

    The generally accepted academic opinion on this subject, by Professors Reuter & McCoun (1999) suggest that while drug legalization might make an individual episode of drugs use safer (known quantity, known strength&, purity), that would be at the cost of much more use and much more TOTAL HARM.

    Evidence for that is in the tobacco/alcohol model as variously applied around the world

    Rather obviously, harm rises with use. More whole of life use gives much more scope for serious harm.

    There is lot of superficial nonsense also talked about removing criminality by legalization.. It cannot do that, a legalized and therefore larger market, especially one with sales tax or age restrictions, creates more opportunity for crime, not less.

    Further nonsense implies simple users are treated harshly in the UK, they are not. Cautions mainly and it is very difficult indeed to get imprisonment for personal use of any drug, in the UK.

    Finally the vexed question of Portugal. What the LibDem leadership and Norman Baker suggest about Portugal is wrong and misleading. I was there three times last year discussing their drug problems, including with parliamentarians. The UK is doing much better than Portugal at containing drugs use and drugs harm. The Daily Mail research is spot on, the data is all out their to be examined. The facts are the Home office report was heavily spun including by Nick Clegg’s spad being exposed as orchestrating that spinning.

    It really is extraordinary when the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is exposed as trying to undermine agreed UK drug policy (on which both main parties broadly agree) from the heart of Number 10 and put broadcasters in touch with legalization lobby groups financed by George Soros.

    One can only assume the mysterious sacking of Jeremy Browne and replacement by Norman Baker, was because he would not go along with the mischief making and duplicity. Responsible opinion (rather than drug users opinion) is that something like the UK, model with a balanced program of prevention, treatment and enforcement is the optimum solution for any society. Drugs are not harmful because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are harmful. Especially cannabis, which robs so many young people of their full potential, physical and mental. Note also that Portugal, took much more robust action against novel psychoactive substances, by banning the “headshops” that sell them, Ireland also.

    The LibDems had all this to sort out and there has been hand sitting, spinning, and a legalisation agenda from Nick Clegg. He is makingca grave mistake.



  • Daniel Caute says “Cannabis consumption is not a crime because it is a peaceful, harmless activity with no victim.”

    Not true. Overwhelmingly it is smoked and that means there are many victims forced to consume it who have not consented – people in the same house or building, passing by in the street, etc.

    I’m badly allergic to cannabis. Being in the same space as someone using it will at best mean I spend the rest of the day pilled up on antihistamines and ibuprofen to dull the harm it does me.

    Drinking alcohol, for example, does not nonconsensually force others in the same space to also have the drug in their body.

  • >”The Daily Mail research is spot on”

    I think that’s all you needed to say to make your point. The Mail gave plenty of evidence as to why fascism would be good for this country prior to WWII, and it’s been making excuses for it ever since. It’s a publication designed to keep the population scared, misinformed and angry, and it sounds like it worked a treat on you.

  • @Duncan Stott
    “We can’t carry on wasting £15bn per year on a failed drugs regime”

    With both drug use and drug-related deaths in sharp decline, how exactly are you defining “failed”? If only other areas of government policy were failing by the same degree.


  • Legalising drugs will vastly increase their use.
    It is wrong to say that the war on drugs isn’t working, there never has been a war on drugs and that is the problem. We had lots of rhetoric but never any action.

    The solution is to be extremely tough on drug use (which we have never actually tried) with the first offence getting a stiff warning plus education, the second, a large fine or custodial sentence plus treatment, the third time a mandatory lengthy sentence with compulsory treatment and no release until judged clean.

    That should do it.

  • Glenn Andrews 18th Nov '14 - 7:36pm

    Peter; you are quite right in saying that there has never been a war on drugs – there has however been a war on millions of otherwise law abiding people…. no-one is suggesting anyone be forced to use recreational narcotics here Peter, just to stop using utterly immoral criminal measures at a mindless vindictive attempt at victimising people who have a different attitude (no doubt)to you when making an assessment of cost/benefit to using them…. neither you nor the state has the right to make that decision for others.

  • Sometimes people say things which are obviously not true —
    “..Sara Scarlett 19th Nov ’14 – 1:44am
    There’s not a single prohibition that has ever brought about the change it’s legislators intended. ”

    There is a long list of prohibitions related to infectious diseases which have brought about precisely the changes that the legislators intended.

    I was lucky enough to grow up in a country virtually free from the sort of deadly diseases that were prevalent only a couple of generations ago. I was very happy that legislators had brought in prohibitions that reduced the huge number of deaths and the widespread suffering that resulted from small pox, polio, diphtheria etc etc. I would not want anyone to remove those prohibitions because of an unrealistic belief in the so-called “free market”.

  • Neil Sandison 19th Nov '14 - 9:26am

    Good and thought ful article by Judy .Any addiction or substance misuse clearly has an impact on that individual or community in which they reside it is not a victimless habit.However it is still health related and we must ensure that local government and local health providers have the budgets to tackle such problems .and should be clearly linked to any reclassification of substances or preventative health strategy .

  • Following relaxation of drugs laws in some US states, big business is already gearing up with marketing initiatives such as branded products to attract consumers on a massive scale.


  • Peter 19th Nov ’14 – 12:03pm. ………big business is already gearing up with marketing initiatives such as branded products to attract consumers on a massive scale.

    Yes indeed Peter, you are spot on. Who will really benefit from legalisation? The large multi-national capitalist empires that are all geared up to exploit a new legal source of mega profits. This article by Dotun Adebayo from today’s Guardian provides some perspective —


  • Thank you to all those who responded. I know most disagreed but thanks to those who expressed support too. I think there is still more research to be done, but it was good to get the debate going after Nick Clegg’s recent announcement on drugs policy. Thanks again . Judy

  • Stuart,

    you’re assuming that our drug laws caused this decline. The Home Office review published a few weeks ago found no link between legal status and levels of consumption.

    Overall illegal drug use may have been falling, but this data is dominated by cannabis as it is miles ahead of any other legal drug in terms of number of users. And yes, cannabis been in long term decline. Over the last 15 years it has gone from Class B to Class C and Class B again, throughout which there was a steady downward trend – the legal status change didn’t affect the overall pattern.

    Also note how tobacco use rates and alcohol consumption has been in long term decline, even though they are legal. There has been a wider social shift away from both cannabis and legal drugs.

    On the other hand, up until the recession hit we saw increases in cocaine use and then the emergence of mephedrone and so-called ‘legal highs’. There is still plenty of demand out there to take recreational drugs and criminalisation simply doesn’t make it go away. We should recognise this fact of life and ensure that those who are going to take drugs do so in the safest possible way. The only way we can achieve that is if we legalise.

  • Finally we can have laws based on science, not politics.

    Truth, not opinion.

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