The war on drugs: time for a truce?

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Cinema 2 Contemporary Controversies


Listen to this session at the bottom of this page.

More people in Britain take drugs than ever before. One recent survey suggested 15 million, or one in three of us, has taken one kind of illegal drug or another. It is clear that prohibition has failed to stop us consuming drugs. From chronic addiction to searching for a ‘spiritual experience’ or simply wanting to ‘let go’ to dance or talk, the human relationship with psychoactive substances has been a feature of societies throughout history. Whether it is heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or cannabis, why is it that so many otherwise law abiding citizens thumb their noses at the law when it comes to drugs?

In September, the iconic Fabric nightclub in London had its license revoked following the death of two 18 year old men within a nine week period. The closing of Fabric led to outcry and started a debate over who is responsible when drug related tragedies occur. Indeed, there has been much criticism of the War on Drugs’, on the grounds that it impedes attempts to help those with drug problems, the sheer number of people who end up incarcerated (especially in the United States) and the violent crime that comes with giving gangsters a market monopoly. As strong as many of these arguments are, do they miss the most obvious point: that as adults we should have the freedom to decide for ourselves whether we want to take drugs? In fact, a poll by the Royal Society for Public Health earlier this year found that just 23% of British people supported arresting people for drug use. Yet the government seems out of step with public sentiment, extending prohibition to so-called legal-highs and khat, a stimulant popular among East African communities in the UK.

Across the world, various places have dealt with the issue of drugs in different ways. Some such as Portugal, which decriminalised the possession of drugs in 2001, tolerate drug use on harm reduction grounds, treating it as a public health, rather than criminal problem. In the US state of Colorado, marijuana legalisation was justified on economic grounds, both from savings to law enforcement and by creating additional tax revenue and jobs in the weed industry. But does state tolerance of drug taking amount to an implicit condoning of drug use? Is drug use a legal, medical or civil liberties issue? Should the law treat currently illegal drugs any differently from alcohol and tobacco?