One of the most frequent arguments against a more liberal drugs policy is that liberalisation would ‘send a message’ that drugs – even hard drugs like heroin and cocaine – were not harmful. This, so the argument goes, would lead to people trying these substances who would never have done so before, thereby leading more people into addiction. This is apparently the reason for David Cameron’s opposition to even seeking Civil Service opinion on the subject, with today’s Sun reporting him as saying that “I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking drugs is OK or safe.” The idea that the criminal law should be used to ‘send a message’ – to set a moral guideline, regardless of the consequences or practicality of its enforcement – is in general a bad one which leads to bad law. But it is a legitimate question to ask in this case. Evidence from Portugal suggests a possible increase in the proportion of the population having ever used illegal drugs; similarly, there is plausible evidence of increased uptake of cannabis in some jurisdictions where it has been legalised.
But if the law is there to ‘send a message’, it should be asked exactly what message is being sent at the moment. It is forgotten now, but many who in the 1960s argued in favour of legalising homosexuality – and, to a lesser extent, abortion – argued from the position that the widespread flouting of the law brought the legal system into disrepute. When one-third of the population admits to having tried an illegal drug, and one in five young people say that they’ve used drugs in the past year, this is a real concern. (Social stigma and fear or prosecution probably mean that these numbers are greatly underreported.)
Furthermore, from personal experience* I would suggest that the irrationality of our drug laws, and the exaggerated claims often used to defend them, lead people to underestimate the dangers of hard drugs. Two examples. The first is somebody I knew at school – someone very bright but rather wayward – who, after taking at a house party what had been sold to them as ketamine, passed out and had to be revived by paramedics. (We didn’t call the ambulance until they stopped breathing because we were afraid that they would end up in trouble – another disadvantage of criminalisation.) I remember them saying beforehand that the dangers of ketamine were small, and while I don’t know for sure that they were influenced by government drugs policy, the fact that cannabis – which for my knowledge has never nearly killed someone – was rated as a Class B drug while ketamine was then Class C might have contributed to their thoughts. The other is a friend who briefly became an occasional cocaine user. When I found out, I had to explain to them – and, again, this is a very well educated and intelligent person – that cocaine was highly addictive and damaging.
When you lump together a group of substances which have little to link them except social disapproval, and rank them with very little correlation to social and personal harm, you send out a confused message – as is fitting, given our country’s confused conversation on illegal drugs. This message underestimates the dangers of alcohol. It brings the criminal justice system into disrepute. And it also leads many to underestimate the harm caused by illegal drugs. Some message. Perhaps David Cameron ought to consider whether it’s worth perpetuating a failed drugs war if this is the best argument he has.
*As it happens, I have never used any illegal drug, unless you count a little underage drinking from the age of 16.