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Arguments for and Against Drug Prohibition

I find the debate around the prohibition (and legalisation) of drugs to be fascinating.

Should hard drugs be banned altogether?

Should hard drugs be banned altogether?

What's Prohibition?

The prohibition of drugs (that is, banning a drug outright) is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, commonplace drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, and even coffee have been banned in various places, with varying degrees of success.

In the 20th century, while alcohol and coffee have been rehabilitated as mainstream drugs, there remain many new and old drugs that have been prohibited in their place. Despite prohibition, drug use remains high, fueling an underground market that supports a vast network of organised criminals and petty crooks.

In the USA, 2006 figures estimate that 14.4% of the population aged over 12 used illicit drugs in the previous year, equivalent to over 35 million people. In the UK, the figure was slightly lower, at 10% of the population aged between 16–59, equivalent to almost 3.2 million people.

A high level of this illegal drug use is marijuana. However, cocaine use seems to be increasing in Europe and is highest in the USA. About 16% of Americans report using cocaine over their lifetime compared with 4% for the next highest country, New Zealand. By way of comparison, the Netherlands, which is famous for the liberalism of its drug laws, reports only 1.9% of the population using cocaine. Equally, while 19.8% of Dutch citizens report marijuana use over their lifetime, this is dwarfed by the massive 42.4% of Americans who report the same.

The gap between the law and the underlying use of illicit drugs is cause for a great debate, with vocal arguments from both sides. In brief, here is the crux of both arguments.

The Argument for Drug Prohibition

  • The fundamental reason for prohibition is to protect people. Illegal drugs are dangerous, both directly and as a result of the psychological effects that can result from their use. Perhaps more importantly, the danger of drug use is not limited to their users. Some drugs can make users more violent, erratic, and unpredictable, with corresponding results for non-users.
  • Prohibition reduces drug use. If you accept that drugs are damaging to society and individuals, then prohibition creates benefits by reducing these harmful effects. Conversely, if prohibition were removed, then drug use would increase with correspondingly harmful effects. Moreover, people might be more encouraged to take more dangerous drugs. Children might become drug users at an earlier age with significant negative health impacts.
  • Drugs can be addictive. In the case of the most serious drugs, the risk of addiction can be high. In the case of addiction, it is arguable that drug use no longer becomes a matter of personal choice but a disease.

The Argument Against Drug Prohibition

  • The failure of prohibition to prevent the consumption of illicit drugs shows that existing policies do not work. It would be preferable to use the money saved by ending prohibition to provide more drug rehabilitation centres and more drug education.
  • More than this though, prohibition creates a powerful supply vacuum that can only be filled by criminals. The consequence of this is less safe drugs (from adulteration), violence, and stronger organised crime elements.
  • By criminalising drug users, prohibition needlessly removes people from potential employment and use to society and possibly creates criminals out of people who wouldn’t otherwise be so inclined.
  • Some illegal drugs are no more dangerous than the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco.
  • Individuals should be able to choose what they do to their bodies as a fundamental principle of liberty.

Drawing Some Conclusions

I’ve written this article not to push any particular argument but to explore the arguments, as I readily admit that this is a tough one. To provide some context, I enjoy a drink as much as the next person, but I don’t smoke and have never used any illegal drugs (honest)—not through lack of opportunity but through choice.

One of the reasons I’m still sitting on the fence is that I can’t fully sympathise with either argument. In one way, I’m more naturally inclined towards the liberalisation argument, but I also find the very concept of addiction—mental slavery to a substance—absolutely horrific.

I find some of the liberalisation arguments, which tend to be focused on bashing alcohol, rather disingenuous. I think alcohol is different from other drugs as it’s possible to use without any major effects and can be enjoyed without serious intoxication.

Equally, I suspect that some of the prohibition propaganda as to the effects of drugs is purposely overblown. Possibly, this is justified given some of the worst-case scenarios, but it still undermines the case for prohibition. Most damning of all is the fact that prohibition seems to create crime as much, if not more than, as it prevents crime. I suppose, though, if drugs were to be legalised, then just as likely would be the creation of powerful interest lobbies. Given the damage done by the stooges of the tobacco industry, I don’t know how good it would be for there to be a powerful ‘cocaine lobby’ for instance.

Mainly, I think that what public debate there is on the subject is flawed, because talking about all drugs in the same breath is misleading as they are very different in their effects. There is probably a case for marijuana legalisation and possibly a case for some form of ecstasy to be approved, but I’m not sure if the risks outweigh the benefits of, say, cocaine or heroin legalisation.

Lastly, I suppose it’s worth touching on the fact that this debate remains an academic one in many ways. I suspect that in America, no politician could realistically argue for drug liberalisation, except in the most liberal of areas. In the UK, the debate is similarly a non-starter, despite various insincere public ‘confessions’ by various politicians of their brief dalliances with drugs whilst at university. The end result is that I can’t see a serious push for liberalisation without a major change in the priorities of both the electorate and political elites.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.