It’s been 95 years since the first formal drug legislation was introduced in the UK, The Dangerous Drugs Act 1920. Right now the Psychoactive Substance Bill is sitting in the Report Stage at The House of Commons. If passed it will criminalise near any substance that has any effect on the human central nervous system. It will also allow officers to perform stop and searches on persons so long as they have “reasonable grounds to suspect that a person has committed, or is likely to commit, an offence”.
Whilst this may sound a touch like Minority Report, is it much to worry about? Hardly so, as similar powers already exist and also because the drug enjoying counter-culture of the swinging sixties is far from dead.
Just three months ago I had the privilege of attending a lecture in Bristol hosted by The Psychedelic Society with guest speakers Professor David Nutt and Dr Ben Sessa. The speech opened with the host and founder of the society, Stephen Reid, informing us about the news developments in Durham where the constabulary were to take a more relaxed response to small marijuana growers and owners.
There are further developments in Ireland where, according to The Independent, Ireland is to start implementing “injection rooms” in Dublin for addicts, with hopes to open further rooms in Cork, Glaway and Limerick. This approach is very similar to that of the Australians who also utilize Safe Injection Sites, where they found “the burden on ambulance services of attending to opioid-related overdoses declined significantly in the vicinity of the Sydney SIF after it opened, compared to the rest of NSW”. They are so successful that the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) argued over ten years ago that “the case for piloting supervised injecting centres in the United Kingdom is strong”.
The case for them certainly does appear to be strong, capable of enticing flamboyant passion as seen in host of National Geographic’s Brain Games Jason Silva’s talk with Big Think talk of The Psychedelic Renaissance. Psychedelics have the capacity to alter your mind, to be able to – as Aldous Huxley put it – open the doors of perception. In wild minds do we dream wild dreams.
There’s also the financial incentive. In Colorado US, where recreational marijuana has been legal since the passing of the Colorado Amendment 64 in early November 2012, they have seen a constant rise of tax revenues gained from marijuana. In 2014, the state collected $44m (despite predicting $70m) yet in the first seven months of 2015 they collected nearly $73.5m in tax revenues.
Currently in the UK the NHS spends approximately £3.5bn a year on costs related to alcohol and the total annual cost of alcohol-related harm to society is estimated to be £21bn. Whilst the tax revenues incurred from marijuana sales would make a dent, there is also evidence to suggest that people will choose marijuana over alcohol, thus also further decreasing the costs of alcohol related harm. Less people drinking, less people hurting. Research has also found a decrease in traffic fatalities since the legalisation of medical marijuana.
This is not a call to arms for all drugs though, as there are those that can cause all manners of lasting damage. Be it Krokodil, a drug famed for its skin-rotting properties, or bath salts that zombify the user, not all drugs should be permitted. A blanket legalisation without regulation would not be prudent, notably due to the adverse health effects of some of the available drugs on the market. However there are those, including marijuana, which could benefit from a change in the law.
Another such drug is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), which currently stands as a Class A Drug in the UK, where possession can land you up to seven years, an unlimited fine or both. Despite this classification, MDMA is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and it has been argued that its prohibition has caused an increase of deadlier alternatives. There’s also debate about the usage of MDMA and psychedelics as treatment for PTSD.
The case for legalisation has been brought to Parliament, as the e-petition “Make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal” garnered near 230,000 signatures. It argued that “legalising cannabis could bring in £900m in taxes every year, save £400m on policing cannabis and create over 10,000 new jobs. A substance that is safer than alcohol, and has many uses. It is believed to have been used by humans for over 4000 years, being made illegal in the UK in 1925.” The topic was debated on 12 October 2015 and the government officially responded with “Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health. There are no plans to legalise cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities.” The full debate can be found here.
This stands contrary to what we have seen elsewhere, as in Portugal for example, where they saw a decrease in drug-related deaths and HIV infections. They only see three drug overdose deaths per million, where we over here see nearly fifteen times that amount. After having some of the worst drug-related death rates in all of Europe under prohibition to then go to the second best stands paramount to the success of Portugal’s decriminalisation.
Compare Portugal to the UK
Alas though it appears that our Government intends to stand against drug legalisation, despite calls for change from the public. Their decision stands irrespective of the fact that the real driver behind drug use is pleasure not dependence; that magic mushrooms can help treat severe depression or the mountains of evidence to support medicinal usage of marijuana. The change will one day be the introduction of legal recreational marijuana, it’s happening in the US, it’s happened in Europe, it should happen here. Undoubtedly, as we have seen worldwide, drug-related deaths will fall, drug-related crime will fall, HIV infections will fall, addicts will seek medical help rather than fear punishment, prisons will become cleared of otherwise innocent civilians as they would not be criminalised for possession of controlled substances, the list goes on. However, with the current government in charge, I doubt we’ll be seeing those liberties granted any time soon.