New Internationalist

What would legalization of drugs look like?

September 2012

Heroin in every lunchbox? Not quite. Medic Max Rendall answers your questions…

This feature was published in the drugs issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.


Why do you believe that legalization might improve the current situation?

There is only one reason, and it is technical. At present the market in illegal drugs is run, worldwide, by criminals. They make unimaginable sums of money, but they have no interest in the strength or purity of their drugs, nor the safety of the users. There would be great advantages if the market were to be taken over by national governments, who could set the rules for its operation and regulate it in any way which seemed desirable. But legalization is a necessary prerequisite for a regulated market.

There is also evidence that a legal market would tend to move away from the most extreme forms of drug taking towards something more reflective. Evidence from Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized over 10 years ago, suggests safer behaviour (fewer fatal overdoses and cases of HIV), when the law is not breathing down your neck so heavily.


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Volker Straeter

As a medical doctor, aren’t you worried that legalization would lead to an increase in the use of dangerous addictive drugs?

No. Dangerous hard drugs would be much more difficult to obtain than from the existing street black market. Legalization would make the subject of drugs much more open. It would remove some of the taboos and the excitement of indulging in an illegal and rebellious activity, which some find irresistible – drugs would become less cool. Perhaps even those with real problems would get the help they need quickly, and treatment could be greatly extended from the huge savings in the police, customs and criminal justice system.


How would children and youth be protected?

It would be illegal to sell any drug to anyone under the designated age, perhaps 18. Anyone caught doing so would lose their licence to sell drugs, and with it a sizeable slice of their business; they might go to prison. It would not be worth the risk.


Once legalized, how would you regulate or control drugs?

Drugs would only be available from certain shops or other outlets, probably including pubs for some drugs. These would be licensed by the regulatory authority, and the licence holder would have to have some special training, so that they could give knowledgeable advice and recognize potential trouble.

Drugs would be divided into perhaps five categories, depending on the possible harm they could cause. At one end, small quantities of codeine tablets could be bought with no restrictions from a licensed chemist (as now). At the other end of the spectrum, heroin and crack cocaine would only be available on a doctor’s prescription, or possibly from special ‘consumption rooms’ where they could be used safely but not taken away. In between, restrictions could be placed on total quantities available, and when and where they had to be picked up. Drugs would never be sold to someone who was ‘stoned’, and there would be restrictions on use in public places. Details would be fine-tuned in the light of experience, perhaps obtained by running pilot projects.

Drugs would be available from certain shops or other outlets. They would be licensed

This would have many advantages. Quality, strength, purity, sterility and labelling could all be vigorously controlled, and hence safety enhanced. Prices would fall because illegal goods sold by criminals are always expensive. The government could set the national prices at which drugs would be sold, which would include tax and the cost of the inspectorate service. Since the government would be the only seller it could maintain an absolute ban on any advertising or other attempts to promote drugs. It would obtain supplies from commercial suppliers after a competitive tendering process. Because prices would be lower than now, there would be less acquisitive crime committed to pay for drugs.


Rather than legalize yet more addictive and mind-altering substances, wouldn’t it be better to aim to change attitudes?

If only it were that simple. Responsible parents – and that is most of them – have always been aware of the dangers and difficulties of growing up, and have tried to steer their children clear of drugs. But drugs have become a normal part of growing up in today’s society. Some sort of experience of drugs, often fleeting, is a rite of passage for teenagers today. And we must accept that most occasional recreational use of drugs is harmless, certainly much less damaging than the drinking and smoking of their parents and grandparents.


Aren’t compulsive drug users deluded by the substances they take, and don’t law makers have a duty of care to protect people from themselves?

Some drug takers do become obsessed, at least for a time, and so behave foolishly or dangerously. But most do not. The idea of protecting someone from ‘themselves’ is a slippery slope which can soon erode hard-won freedoms. Such behaviour has to be extreme before intervention could be justified.


Does legalization imply a privatized free market in drugs?

Certainly not. Access to drugs would be more difficult under the legalization proposals than it is now. There would be fewer drugs around.


Wouldn’t hard drugs become cheap?

They would certainly become cheaper, though this would be mitigated by the addition of tax. But it would be more difficult to get access to hard drugs than it now is – you would have to get a prescription, or find some illegal source.


Aren’t there any drugs that should just be illegal for health or social reasons? What about crack cocaine, for example?

There is a good case for banning most drugs, but that is the position now, and proscribing a drug, if anything, makes it more attractive to some. Unless all drugs were available from a legal market, those which were not available would, once again, be supplied by the criminal and uncontrolled black market.


Wouldn’t there still be a ‘black’ or illegal market, controlled by criminal elements, in spite of legalization?

There almost certainly would be, but what would matter would be the relative prices, and how big the illegal market is. Illegal drugs would obviously be more expensive than on the legal market, but there would be a few who would wish to pay a premium for a variety of reasons. It is unlikely that there would be much money to be made, and the market is likely to be small. For that reason, cheaper and legally obtained drugs would dominate.


Is there anywhere that legalization has been tried successfully?

No, it has never been tried.


Would legalization happen everywhere, overnight? How do you envisage it would be done?

In an ideal world, yes. There would have to be strong leadership from the United Nations, with suitable lead-up times, and commitment by the majority of nations of the world. But there would be non-compliers. However, if it started to be obvious that there were benefits, it is likely that the policy would quickly gain acceptance. But nobody should ever think that any policy will solve all the problems of drugs and drug-taking, and few believe that legalization is just around the corner.


Where can I find out more?

A drug policy charity called Transform (tdpf.org.uk) has done a lot of good work looking at how legalization might work. Of especial interest and relevance is ‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ and ‘A Comparison of the Cost-effectiveness of the Prohibition and Regulation of Drugs’.


Max Rendall is the author of Legalize: the only way to combat drugs (Stacey International, London, 2011). Stacey-international.co.uk

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