The law on drugs

Taking a sub-stance: British protesters call for a liberalisation of drug laws © PA

Nick Clegg has promised that the Liberal Democrats will push for the decriminalisation of drugs after this year’s election. Is the era of drugs prohibition coming to an end?

  • So is the law on drugs changing?

    Not yet — or not in Britain, at least. But calls to relax anti-drugs laws are growing. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was joined by the billionaire Virgin boss Richard Branson as he pledged to relax the UK’s anti-drugs laws. Clegg believes that drug use should be treated as an issue for the health services rather than the police.

  • Surely they’re not proposing that we should just legalise everything?

    Technically, no: drugs would still be illegal, but possession would cease to be a criminal offence. That might sound like a dangerously radical proposal, but there is actually a very well-known European precedent for the policy, which Clegg and Branson have highlighted as a model.

    In Portugal, drugs were decriminalised in 2001. Instead of punishing users with fines or prison sentences, Portuguese courts direct people caught with drugs to ‘dissuasion boards’, where they are classified either as a recreational user or an addict. Recreational users may receive a fine (although not a criminal record), but addicts are never punished: instead they are given extensive medical and social care to help them quit.

  • And does it work?

    Before Portugal introduced the policy, a lot of critics warned that such a liberal drugs policy could lead to an epidemic of addiction. That has not happened. By many measures, in fact, drug use has become less of a problem. Fewer people are thought to be seriously addicted. HIV rates have fallen. And drug-related crime is less common than it was a decade ago.

  • So drugs aren’t that bad after all?

    That’s absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. Some drugs are more dangerous than others, but all of them, legal or otherwise, carry serious risks. Some, such as cannabis and ecstasy, may damage your mental capacity and increase your risk of mental illness. Others, such as cocaine and heroin, lead to serious dependency. Legal highs may be the most risky of all, since nobody is yet sure of their side effects.

    The rationale behind decriminalisation is not to encourage drug use, but to regulate it and create more effective and humane methods of control. ‘In reality it’s far tougher now,’ says one of the people responsible for administering the system in Portugal, referring to police enforcement.

  • Are you saying people are less likely to take drugs if we stop punishing them for it? That makes no sense.

    And yet it is exactly what many experts seriously believe. And Portugal is not the only country that is relaxing its prohibition. Several American states have decriminalised cannabis, while Norway and the Czech Republic have introduced far more liberal laws in recent years.

  • So is the war on drugs coming to an end?

    Perhaps. But not everybody is convinced. Critics of decriminalisation point out that although drug use has fallen in Portugal, it has also decreased in countries like Britain, where no such liberalisation has occurred. And Portugal is not a simple success story: while it has blunted some of the worst side effects of drug abuse, some worry that it has also normalised addiction.

  • What's the alternative?

    Redoubling efforts to crack down on the drugs trade at every level, in the conviction that it is possible to end widespread drug abuse once and for all. Pope Francis recently came out against legalisation in his native South America, calling it ‘a veiled means of surrendering to the problem’. This encapsulates what many opponents of legalisation feel: that decriminalising drugs means admitting defeat and abandoning those whose lives they destroy.

You Decide

  1. Should using drugs be a criminal offence?


  1. Pick a drug (legal or illegal) and produce a brief fact file on it, including at least three risks.

Word Watch

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is passed on when people share bodily fluids. This puts people who inject drugs at particular risk, since a shared needle can pass on residues of blood. In Portugal, however, addicts are given free needles to reduce the risk of disease.
One of the main arguments for decriminalising drugs is that the illegal drugs trade fuels organised crime on a massive scale. The value of drugs traded each year far exceeds £200bn, and drug wars in Mexico have killed 100,000 people since 2006.
Legal highs
The fact that a substance is legal does not imply it is safe for consumption — only that it has been synthesised too recently for laws to be passed.
American states
Cannabis has been fully legalised in four US states — Colorado, Oregon Alaska and Washington — and partially legalised in several more. But it is still forbidden under federal law, which makes it difficult to buy and sell freely.

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The law on drugs
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