Opinion: Hot Issue - Is legalisation and regulation the best way to control drug use?

Think-tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation is making the case for a regulated market for recreational drugs in a report debated last week by key figures from Parliament, charities and the media.

NO - Peter Stoker, director, National Drug Prevention Alliance

Wrecked. Wasted. Out of it.

This is how drug users describe their preferred condition. If you want this self-centred condition to be encouraged, to be normalised into a valid lifestyle choice, then legalisation and regulation is for you. If you want to encourage a life in which people are better able to achieve their potential and to cooperate with their fellow citizens rather than withdraw from or exploit them, then a prevention-based policy is what you want.

Beware promises of improvement flowing from law relaxation. The idea that regulating destructive behaviours somehow makes them all right is as nebulous as the 'high' its advocates seek to legitimise - and just as empty. Drug criminals will undercut the legal market (as they do now with tobacco and alcohol) and will sell to those for whom the market will still be illegal - the under-18s.

Evidence from Switzerland and Holland has exposed the shortcomings of relaxing the law. Legalisers blame these failures on relaxation not having gone far enough. That is, limited stupidity fails, but unlimited stupidity will sort things out. Pardon?

NO - David Chater, public affairs manager, Turning Point

Although I have some sympathy with the reasons behind Transform's report, I haven't yet seen the evidence that legalisation will work. After all, alcohol is legally available, but each year it kills three times as many people as 'class A' drugs and costs society £20bn. It is the most common drug used in sexual assaults and plays a factor in up to 45 per cent of domestic violence cases.

We need to think radically about how we work with dependent drug users, including some ideas linked to legalisation. Heroin prescribing is a vital option for some people - particularly for some of the most chaotic drug users or those for whom methadone doesn't work. Safe injecting rooms where people can inject prescribed heroin have proven to be effective in other countries and Turning Point would like to see them trialled here.

We also need to start treating people rather than problems. Substance misuse is so often one element in a complex web of issues including mental health, poverty, housing and education needs. From a pragmatic point of view, and from the experience of our service users, meeting these support needs would seem to offer a far greater chance of success than legalisation.

NO - Marcus Roberts, head of policy, Drugscope

The problem with the proposal for blanket legalisation of all drugs is that there is no precedent. It is difficult to predict what the consequences would be and, ultimately, there are profound ethical questions at stake in the legalisation debate. Why should LSD or crack be available either via a chemist or a retail outlet? They don't have any therapeutic value.

Few would argue that regular use of these substances is a good way to live one's life. Most would accept that drug dependency is a bad thing, and that there are other harms associated with the use of drugs - and, particularly, 'class A' drugs. By legalising these substances, the Government would, to a greater or lesser extent, be legitimising their use.

Anti-prohibitionist work has highlighted serious problems with drug laws and policy, but there are alternatives to legalisation. Drugscope would rather campaign for reversible, piecemeal reforms. The emphasis should be on trial and error, on moving forward with an open mind, on taking one step at a time, building on the evidence base, responding to research findings and so on. Where we end up cannot be decided in advance of this step-by-step process - it will become clearer along the way.

YES - Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West

After 43 years of the harshest drugs prohibition laws in Europe, the UK tops the league tables for drug use, deaths and rate of imprisonment.

After 25 years of decriminalisation in the Netherlands, heroin deaths are a tenth of ours and cannabis use has dropped to half.

The 'tough' UK Drugs Tsar's reign promised drugs heaven and delivered a deepening drugs hell. World use of illegal drugs continues its 80-year-long increase undisturbed by the billions spent in wars on drugs.

No-one wants a free-for-all. The experience in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands proves that providing a clean supply of heroin in controlled conditions improves the health of users, cuts crime and provides paths from addiction. Regulated decriminalisation collapses the criminal market.

Lives are destroyed not by drugs alone but by drug laws. Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands and parts of Australia and the US have decriminalised cannabis with beneficial results. British public opinion now accepts the need for medicinal cannabis. Britain is inching towards its first reform.

Prohibition kills, whereas decriminalisation and legalisation cuts harm.

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