Drugs and the state: do as we say, not as we do?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, ConservatoryLaw Matters

Have you ever smoked opium at an Afghani wedding? Or had cannabis lassi while backpacking through India? While most of us have spent the last year talking about the B-word, this year’s Tory leadership contest was fixated on the D-word: drugs. Many of the candidates admitted to using drugs in the past, from cannabis to cocaine. These confessions caused considerable public outrage at the time. Why should politicians be allowed to dabble in drugs, when the rest of us risk going to jail if we light up a joint?

The debate about drug legalisation goes beyond what certain politicians did or did not take when they were at university. After the high-profile case last year of Billy Caldwell, whose mother successfully campaigned for cannabis treatment for his epilepsy, the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, ruled that cannabis-derived medicinal products could be prescribed like other medicines. But while Javid was keen to stress that this wasn’t about legalising drugs entirely, a more liberal approach to recreational drug use might be closer than we think. After being inspired by Canada’s move to legalise cannabis, Labour MP David Lammy, Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly and Liberal Democrat Sir Norman Lamb visited a cannabis-processing plant on a ‘fact-finding’ mission this year. Lamb even sampled some cannabis oil to help him ‘sleep’ on the plane home.

But while some are optimistic about the possibility of looser drug laws, others point to the dangers of recreational use. A recent BBC Three documentary, Festival Drugs: Meet the Dealers, detailed the alarming rise of drug-related deaths at UK festivals – and the dark industry that produces Class-A drugs. According to the Office of National Statistics, the current level of illegal drug-related deaths (almost 3,000 in 2018) is the highest since comparable records began in 1993.

While many of these deaths are caused by ecstasy overdoses or dangerous chemical concoctions, there are other problems. Critics of legalisation point to high levels of addiction to prescription medication as proof of the danger of drugs. The nationwide opioid crisis in the US has reportedly claimed over 400,000 lives. In September, headlines in the UK reported the alarming fact that one in four British citizens are currently taking ‘addictive’ drugs like antidepressants, sleeping pills and opioid painkillers.

Is it the business of the state to prevent us from taking drugs? Is legalisation a matter of personal autonomy or public safety? Could legalising drugs be a means to target crime that goes hand in hand with an illegal drugs market – like the worrying rise in knife crime? Or does giving the green light to legalisation underestimate the dangers of addictive drugs? Should we be free to smoke, snort and drop what we like? Or is the risk of increased drug use too high a price to pay for personal freedom?