Decriminatisation and legalisation

The decision whether any drug is acceptable in medical practice is made after an evaluation of its safety in relation to its efficacy. The same principle should be used for drugs for nonmedical or social use. But the usual scientific criteria for evaluating efficacy are hardly applicable. The reasons why people choose to use drugs for nonmedical purposes are listed above. None of them carries serious weight if the drug is found to have serious risks to the individuals4 or to society, with either acute or chronic use. Ordinary prudence dictates that any such risks should be carefully defined before a decision on legalisation is made.

There is no doubt that many individuals think, rightly or wrongly, that private use of cannabis, if not of 'harder' drugs, is their own business and that the law should permit this freedom. The likelihood that demand can be extinguished by education or by threats appears to be zero. The autocratic implementation of laws that are not widely accepted in the community leads to violent crime, corruption in the police, and alienation of reasonable people who would otherwise be an important stabilising influence in society.

4 Hazard to the individual is not a matter for the individual alone if it also has consequences for society.

But though written laws are so often inflexible and combine what would best be separated, informal judicial discretion under present law may be permitting more experimentation than would recurrent legislative debate. It is recognised that this untidy approach, which may be best for the time being, cannot satisfy the extravagant advocates either of licence or of repression.

A suggested intermediate course for cannabis, and perhaps even for heroin, is that penalties for possession of small amounts for personal consumption should be removed (decriminalisation as opposed to legalisation), whilst retaining criminal penalties for suppliers. Such an approach is increasingly and informally being implemented.

Nobody knows what would happen if the production, supply and use of the major drugs, cannabis, heroin and cocaine, were to be legalised, as tobacco and alcohol are legalised (with weak selling restrictions). There are those who, shocked by the evils of illegal trade, consider that legalisation could only make matters better. The debate continues about what kinds of evils affecting the individual and society can be tolerated and how they can be balanced against each other.

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