Wales on Drugs VI: Why don’t we legalise drugs?

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As said in Part I, there’s a growing consensus – even in Westminster – that recreational drugs (especially cannabis) should be decriminalised, if not legalised completely.What once would’ve been too radical a proposition is starting to gain traction. (Former) UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, called for a Royal Commission to explore “alternatives to the war on drugs”. Chief Constable for Durham, Mike Barton, called for drug legalisation in September 2013, joined by the force’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, Ron Hogg, who also supports drug rooms.

Drug liberalisation isn’t a “left-right” issue. Among those who’ve supported a Royal Commission is Nigel Farage (though it’s not official UKIP policy), while some Conservatives have supported calls to legalise or decriminalise cannabis to varying degrees. This is an argument that boils down to social conservatism and social liberalism.

I’ve come round to supporting legalisation of recreational drugs, with a tiered system of restriction. I haven’t always supported that, but after 50 years of failure, it’s time to change the “victory conditions” in the War on Drugs. Ultimately, “victory” means destroying the criminal drug trade.

If legalising drugs is such a radical, “unworkable” position, why isn’t it the same case for complete prohibition of all recreational drugs – including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine?

Because it doesn’t work. You have to set reasonable boundaries, but when it comes to drugs, those boundaries are – admittedly – hard to define.

Why is drug liberalisation off the agenda?

Health timebomb – Looking at cannabis in isolation, its long-term use has been linked to (but never conclusively proven AFAIK) illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. If it were legalised and its use normalised, then you would presume some illnesses would see a rise in cases. In terms of the effect on usage levels, tolerance of cannabis in the Netherlands was compared to San Francisco (where it’s illegal) in a public health study (here). The results showed no impact on levels of drug use regardless of whether a drug is legal/decriminalised or criminalised. Research in the British Medical Journal from The Netherlands also supports heroin on prescription to treat addiction, as it “was significantly more effective” than methadone.

We should perhaps encourage people away from harmful stimulants and opioids that lead to long-term health and societal impacts like cocaine, heroin and tobbaco, towards “soft”depressants and hallucinogens like cannabis, psylocibins and LSD.

Paternalism – Nothing good can come from giving people access to something that damages their bodies. This is the “Welsh Labour” model – a social conservatism based around wanting to protect people from themselves. It’s the same line of thinking that’s led to public smoking bans and proposals like minimum pricing for alcohol. So it’s not a bad argument. Except you have to ask the question whether leaving drugs in the hands of the black market is – in itself – going to do more harm than a properly regulated market?

Protestant morality– Partaking in conscious-altering activities for pleasure is frowned upon unless they’re within the confines of a very strict, “traditional”, controlled environment. So getting drunk at a pub or party is acceptable because everyone is willing to do it, and it’s something that’s “always happened”. Zoning out on magic mushrooms in a middle of a field isn’t. You can argue it’s hypocritical, but as the attitudes in Part V show, it’s quite prevalent.

Fear – Drug liberalisation could be too massive a change in social policy for people to take. Therefore, it’s too big a risk for politicians, whose careers often rely on being in step with public opinion not “doing the right thing”. Since the War on Drugs began, drugs have become synonymous with criminality, seen as a “scourge on society” and have provided media outlets with headlines and police forces with good PR. To suddenly do an about face on that conventional wisdom would be a dive into uncharted waters.

Classism – When Nigella Lawson and Barack Obama admitting using cocaine, and Prince Harry cannabis, it was treated with a sense of amusement. Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s antics have gone viral, while nobody mentions Katherine Jenkins’ previous use of cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. I’ll admit that when watching The Taste, I was trying to spot if Nigella was gurning, not concerned about her health or the fact she had managed to get hold of Class A drugs. So to “get away” with drug use you have to carry yourself well, be middle-class, wealthy and well-educated.

Although not on the same scale, a similar leeway hasn’t been afforded to the “more common” Tulisa Contostavlos. Double standards? Is drug use only permissible when the elite want to be naughty? Are people worried that drug liberalisation will lead to the lower classes running amock because they “can’t handle it”?

Stimulants don’t have the same stigma as depressants and opioids. For example, cocaine and ecstasy are exclusive because they promote productivity and sociability, are expensive and seen as high society’s drug of choice. LSD and magic mushrooms are seen as things for hippies and twee folk singers. Methamphetamines? They have an anti heroic glamour to them since Breaking Bad, although on the ground it’s a completely different story.

Heroin? Human scum and criminals….unless you’re Angelina Jolie, Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Robbie Williams, Robert Kennedy Jnr…..

Let’s argue about it over ten pints of local craft ale.

Arguments in favour of drug liberalisation

Personal liberty – A principle that people should be able to make a choice about what they do in their free time with their own money – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or wider society (what John Stuart Mill called the harm principle). A less social-minded libertarian (like many in UKIP) might leave out the last bit. That one line means that there’s no contradiction in supporting drug legalisation, yet at the same time supporting things like public smoking bans (due to passive smoking – harming someone else) or minimum prices on alcohol (to curb drunken assaults – harming wider society).

Ideally, nobody would take recreational drugs because they wouldn’t feel the need to. Whether children get their hands on them is moot as it already happens. However, I would much rather an adult had the option to take a government-regulated and taxed version of ecstasy, manufactured in Wales and restricted in sale. That’s better that some Made in China legal high, or smuggled cocaine, stained by the blood of thousands lost in a “war”nobody’s willing to call time on.

Regulation & Oversight – One of the serious health issues relating to drug abuse is that there are no guidelines or restrictions on what’s in them. DrugScope say some amphetamines sold on the street might be only 10% pure, while there are figures of 28% for cocaine and 30% for heroin. Common cutting agents include things like flour and dry wall, through to cleaning products and rat poison.

So some cutting agents are probably as dangerous to a user as the active ingredient in drugs themselves. Setting proper industrial standards for recreational drugs would enable safer drugs to be sold or safer alternatives created. Prof. David Nutt, for example, is working on an alternative to alcohol.

Take the drugs market away from criminals – The reason drugs affect society negatively is because they’re illegal – criminalising the act itself – and subsequently places the role of regulator, manufacturer and supplier in the hands of criminals. It’s logical that if very addictive drugs like heroin were available on prescription there would be no reason for people to commit theft to obtain them. The state would also control the supply and dosage, possibly reducingaccessibility to certain drugs.

People who produce drug crops – like cannabis and coca – will be able to sell them on the market legitimately without having to deal with the criminal underworld. They would be able to run legitimate businesses, subject to whatever taxes and regulations the government decides to lay down.

It would be completely wrong and irresponsible to say legalising drugs would definitely reduce crime. It might; relieving pressure of the police, prisons and court services through falls in convictions, because things like possession would no longer be a crime.

However, all those “nice guys” currently making money out of drugs trafficking aren’t suddenly going to “go straight”. It could result in increases in crime elsewhere – money laundering, robberies, cyber crime, arms dealing, people trafficking.

The economic argument – It’s unclear how much revenue a tax on recreational drugs would bring in, but it’s not likely to be much. Exeter University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (pdf p112) estimates legalised cannabis in the UK would raise between £540million-£740million in tax (if set at 70%) and the total net-benefit to the economy and budget would be in the region of £740million-£1.05billion.

If you included all drugs (presuming that boosted the figures by 25%), then I’ll guesstimate tax revenues would be between £675million-£935million and a net-benefit to the UK economy would be at least £900million, perhaps significantly more.

At a Welsh level, you would expect tax income alone to be in the £35million-£50million range. Though in total it would take a significant dent out of the estimated £1.1billion cost of drugs to the Welsh economy and public services (Part IV).

In 2010, The Guardian put the total economic benefit to the UK at £5billion (Welsh share: ~£250million).

Is decriminalisation a cop-out?

Decriminalisation removes the penalty for using or supplying a drug. It’s like saying, “You shouldn’t do this, but we’re going to look the other way.”

Legalisation would mean society taking responsibility for the matter via the tax system, legislation and public bodies. We would have to confront the problem, not brush it under the carpet.

Decriminalisation might make things worse because the “market” would remain unregulated and in the hands of criminals – so it would still have an “edge” – while there would be no extra tax income to fund schemes to negate the health and social effects. The only people it would benefit are politicians, who can appear liberal or as compassionate conservatives without ending “The War on Drugs”, and occasional users, not addicts.

Some parties – like Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and the Greens – can support legalising cannabis or decriminalisation, because the policy is mainstream enough for it not be a completely ludicrous proposition, but low enough down the list of people’s priorities that it sounds“radical”. It’s almost a token addition to policy put out to attract students and the “dungarees, drums and dreadlocks”vote.

Legalising or decriminalising cannabis in isolation could also lead to calls for legalisation of ecstasy and LSD, until every drug gets legalised via the back door. So the rational choice should be between continuing prohibition in some form (Part V), or full drug legalisation.


Netherlands – Drugs are illegal, though there’s no distinction between “soft” and “hard” drugs. The use and sale of certain drugs (in particular cannabis) is “tolerated” and unofficially legalised. Due to concerns about “drug tourism”, cannabis sales are restricted to paid-up members of coffee houses who have a proof of residency. The Netherlands has both some of the lowest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe and drug use/cannabis use overall.

Portugal – In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of all narcotics, replacing the criminal offence with a civil offence and placing limits on amounts of drugs for “personal use”. According to a 2007 Beckley Foundation report (pdf), cannabis use increased 60%, heroin use decreased 28%, drug-related deaths fell 59% and the number of people sent to prison for drug offences fell 16%. However, overall drug-related crime increased. There was also an increased uptake of drug-treatment programmes due to better and earlier intervention. Overall lifetime drug use rates fell too.

Colorado, United States – Medicinal cannabis was already legal, but the Colorado 2013 Amendment 64 referendum (55.3% yes, 44.7% no) saw the legalisation of commercial sale of cannabis through licenced dispensaries, and growing up to three cannabis plants for personal use. The state sets an excise duty and sales tax, and the changes came into effect on 1stJanuary 2014. In the first month, sales topped $14million and Colorado collected $2million in taxes and a further $1.5million in fees. Washington legalised cannabis along similar lines in 2012, while other states considering it include New Jersey, Alaska and Oregon.

Uruguay – Uruguay became the first nation state to legalise cannabis in 2013, passing a law which allows people to buy a certain amount of cannabis from the government each month. People are also allowed to grow a limited amount for personal consumption. A licensing system will be introduced for future agricultural production. Several South American heads of state and government have called for a rethink of drugs laws in order to end The War on Drugs, including Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos. Uruguay’s President, Jose Mujica, has subsequently been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Legalising drugs in an independent Wales

Wales will only get powers over drugs policy through independence – full stop. There’s no way in hell Westminster will let those powers go within the UK, and it wasn’t even considered as part of Silk II even though social security was.

The case in favour of legalising cannabis, and possibly “soft” drugs like LSD and ecstasy, is open and shut. That’s not the case for“hard” drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and heroin. So a tiered system of restriction is appropriate.

Drug Classification

A Welsh equivalent of NICE could be responsible for setting drug classification and the phamaceutical standards required, based on scientific evidence, and offer recommendations to the Health Minister and equivalent of Home Affairs Minister.

Instead of the current Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it might be worth creating a universal system covering all drugs based on the Medicines Act 1968, or a new Drugs Act.


  • Class ARestricted under medical supervision – This would include heroin and methadone to treat registered addicts, and other prescription medicines that aren’t fit for everyday consumption. They would be available on prescription only and can’t be sold commercially.
  • Class B Restricted – All other recreational drugs, requiring a licence to sell, manufacture, import raw ingredients or supply. There’s an argument whether cocaine would be placed here or in Class A. Alcohol, tobacco and high-caffeine energy drinks could be placed here too.
  • Class CGeneral Sale – Drugs that don’t require pharmaceutical training to sell or a licence. This would include over the counter medicines and caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, soft drinks etc. No restrictions on sale (where applicable).

Manufacturing and supply of narcotics

Manufacturers and suppliers should be licenced three times by the Welsh Government to:

  • import or export raw ingredients (i.e. coca) or a pre-agreed quantity of the drug itself.
  • Manufacture drugs (including a distiller’s licence to produce alcohol commercially).
  • Supply recreational drugs to licenced pharmacies in Wales.
    Newly-licenced narcotics (cannabis etc.) should be sold in plain packaging, with nothing but the name of the drug, number of doses, instructions on use (where applicable), its ingredients and the manufacturer address etc. The packaging should also include clear and unequivocal health warnings. 

Sale and use of narcotics

  • Sales should be restricted to those who can prove they’re aged 18+ , except for those under medical supervision. Class A drugs should only be available with a valid Welsh prescription.
  • Sale of newly-licenced recreational narcotics (Class B) would be via licenced pharmacies, licence terms including a “fit and proper person’s test”; plus police, health board and local authority approval.
  • Current licensing arrangements for alcohol and tobacco would remain unchanged and could be expanded to include high-caffeine energy drinks.
  • Internet sales could go either way as it would be hard to prove identities, so the case for allowing internet sales isn’t clean cut and it would be sensible to restrict narcotic sales to in-person only.

Newly-licenced recreational narcotics (Class B) can be sold in licenced pharmacies, as long as:

  • The pharmacy isn’t within 400 metres of a primary or secondary school (like measures proposed for fast food outlets).
  • They’re not sold in the same place as alcoholic drinks (so no sales in off licences, supermarkets etc), though medicinal alcohol is fine.
  • They meet some sort of minimum security arrangement – including CCTV of customers, regular inspections by the police, possibly separate queues for recreational drug sales.

Other factors:

  • There should be a complete advertising ban, except inside the pharmacy itself. Any advertising has to be boring and can’t “glamorise” drugs or drug use.
  • People should be able to cultivate a certain amount of drugs for personal use with a licence.
  • It would be up to individual establishments to decide if they “tolerate” recreational drug use on their premises. Local councils could include the provision of sterile, supervised “drug rooms” in nightclubs, pubs etc. in licensing conditions.

Criminal Offences

Criminal penalties and prison sentences should remain for:

  • Supplying Class A drugs to someone without a prescription, except in a medical emergency.
  • Selling or supplying Class A & B drugs in public, without a licence, or to under-18s (unless exempt).
  • Drug trafficking into or out of Wales without expressed permission.
  • Manufacturing or cultivating recreational drugs for sale without a licence.

Civil offences should remain for:

  • Using drugs in a public place (i.e. like smoking). Existing anti-smoking legislation should be extended to cannabis joints, bongs and shisha.
  • Police should have the power to demand proof of purchase for any A&B drugs they find on someone. If proof isn’t provided they should have discretionary powers to confiscate them.


  • An excise tax like those placed on alcohol and tobacco should be levied on :
    • The drugs themselves.
    • Drug paraphernalia (i.e. bongs, wraps).
    • Seeds and spores (where applicable) – taxed at 200%+
    • Any specialist equipment associated with manufacture or use of drugs.
  • Class A drugs would be exempt from excise taxes because they would be available on prescription only, as would things like syringes in needle exchanges etc.
  • Licenced pharmacies and drug manufacturers would also be subject to usual business taxes and excise duties.

Problems to overcome

A foolproof roadside “drug driving” test – The police have tests for drug driving, mostly relating to pupil size and coordination. However, that might not work for all drugs and the best way – ultimately – is a roadside blood test. The technology isn’t there yet, though mouth swab tests for cannabis are being piloted.Employee relations – Would turning up to work under the influence of (then legal) recreational drugs be a valid reason for dismissal or punishment? I’d argue it is for common sense reasons, and doesn’t undermine the argument for legalisation. Drug testing for employees would probably have to become routine (it already is for some jobs, like train drivers, pilots, bus drivers etc), but it could be considered an infringement of civil liberties and trade unions would go ballistic.

Imports, exports and trafficking– I don’t need to tell you what controversy it would cause if cannabis or cocaine with “Made in Wales” stamped on it appeared on the streets of Bristol.

International reaction – Legalising drugs, whether cannabis in isolation or whole scale, would almost certainly cause diplomatic problems with the United States and most of Europe – especially if it were a unilateral decision. It would openly declare they are wrong on drugs, and if it’s anything the global big boys don’t like, it’s being told they’re wrong. South American heads of state would consider us heroes though.

I’m sure there are others too.

Give Peace A Chance

We don’t have to like it. We should actively discourage people from doing it. But we should respect an individual’s right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, free time and money.

People have to be provided with the best information possible, that avoids scare-mongering and is based on medical facts. If the truth is scary, so be it; but blanket warnings that discourage one person aren’t going to do the same thing for another person.

People deserve to know what they’re putting into their bodies. Leaving it in the hands of criminals ,or bucket chemists in the middle of the jungle, is a betrayal of a government’s responsibility to protect the public and promote public health – even if what the public are doing harms themselves.

It’s a dangerous activity that wreaks havoc on the environment, its raw ingredients leading to military action. It destroys lives and rips apart communities. It leads to thousands of imprisonments and criminal convictions every year. The long-term effects have led to countless hospital treatments and continues to leave hundreds dead – robbing us of talented people.

It’s called the car.

We allow it because we trust an individual’s judgement, we tax and pass laws to ensure the industry is regulated, we ensure individuals know how to use them safely for their own sake (and everyone else) and we – as a society – punish people appropriately when they abuse that trust.

It’s surely time to do the same with recreational drugs.

UPDATE 10/01/2015 : Here’s a succinct article covering all of the main points in favour of drugs legalisation from Ethan Glover.