Because the Drugs (Legislation) Don’t Work

11 Sep

I still sometimes wake in cold sweats. I am there again and it is happening.

Late at night, toally unprovoked, the first attack from behind, knocks me to the floor. A large group, all female, all wasted on alcohol and desperate for destruction. I remember it, all too vividly, I will never forget. They probably were not bad women on the whole, it’s all too easy to demonise our attackers, but they were deeply under the influence of alcohol and they felt invincible. I did not (could not?) fight back. They left their mark…

I’m not the only one, take a look at this picture. These injuries:

All these injuries were caused by people under the heavy influence of alcohol. Let’s put an end to this! Let’s make alcohol illegal. It’s massively addictive, contributes to public disturbances and plagues poorer communities. It’s time that stops…

At this point a large proportion of my readers, I hope, are wondering what’s going on. Logic should have kicked in. I’m deliberately using emotion and shocking images to manipulate your thinking and bring it round to mine. It’s a very simple trick and it is easily combatted with critical reasoning: Although alcoholism is a problem in the UK (and worldwide), on the whole, people have a sensible relationship with alcohol. Alcohol did and does cause the things I described, but you should not legislate based on emotion and isolated incidents. That would be really stupid, right? Prohibition of things that are readily available in society is always ineffectual and destined to fail. Right?

Here’s a picture of Leah Betts:

In 1995, this picture outraged the nation. It prompted a sit-down with my parents to warn me about THOSE Drugs. For many in the anti-drugs lobby in the UK, Leah’s picture is enough to vindicate their point that all drugs are bad and all drug use ends in the death of the user.

A single picture proves nothing. This picture of Leah Betts proves nothing, other than life is perilously fragile and the tragic death of a young girl is A Tragedy. It is worth noting that despite common perceptions that Leah died from taking Ecstasy, in fact her death was caused by drinking too much water, which diluted her bloodstream. But, even if she had died from an Ecstasy tablet, you can’t (and shouldn’t) legislate based on this. We should expect and demand evidence-based practice and pictures of dead girls, while shocking and terribly sad, are no aid to critical reasoning. It’s a very simple trick. It’s okay to talk about it, here’s why…

In 2009, the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation calculated/estimated/made-up, the cost of UK enforcement of drugs legislation to £16 Billion. We are paying for that. You, Me and Everyone else in the UK, we’re all paying for that. Part of paying for something is you get to have a voice in how that money is spent.  I can think of a lot better uses for that money and we need more than shock tactics and propaganda if we are to have a sensible, adult discussion on legislation that costs our country vast sums of money to enforce every year.

I’m not going to labour the point on why the, so-called, War on Drugs is dumb, there are far more interesting and educated folk who’ve done that better than I ever could (see further reading), but to summarise:

  • Most of the problems with illegal drugs stem from their illegality not individual substances;
  • In about 60 years of activity, the anti-drugs lobby and enforcement activity worldwide has summarily failed to reduce the number of users and the availability of drugs in society;
  • While Alcohol and Nicotine remain legal, any moral argument based on overall public harm is at best mis-guided and, at worst, deceiptful and morally bereft;
  • Drugs legislation often criminalises those who otherwise lead totally moral and law-abiding lifestyles; and
  • At a time of economic decline the War on Drugs is costing us all a small fortune and achieving nothing.

…But I’m more concerned about one of the by-products of this mis-guided War. Unless we learn from history, it repeats, cliched and entirely true; prohibition does not work. There is always a response.

Over the last few years there has been an alarming rise in the variety and widespread availability of totally legal ‘Research Chemicals’, often known as Legal Highs. These highs come in a variety of shapes and sizes: pills, powders, smokes; all attractively packaged and branded with names such as Herbal Haze (smoke), black mamba (smoke), Columbiana (powder) all totally unregulated available on the UK highstreet and over the internet. What is more, I am reliably informed, many of these Research Chemicals are as strong and, in many cases, stronger than illegal alternatives. Let me say again: no one is regulating this absolutely vast industry that must be worth millions every year.

I am also reliably informed that there are massive inconsistancies between products, even those branded the same way, and I have heard from numerous friends that this has lead them to have quite negative, unpleasant and frightening experiences using such substances. One friend reported smoking a substance, branded as anhilation, which produced a near psychosis, short term loss of some muscle control and days of detachment afterwards. I have a genuine concern that it is a matter of time before people start dying as a result of these substances. But…

Further prohibition is not the answer. It can’t be. Prohibition is the root cause at the heart of the market for research chemicals. Prohibition is no longer an adequate response to the problem. If the government bans one batch of chemicals, within a matter of days a new batch will appear and there is no forseeable end to that. The war on drugs has ultimately created the problem that it was designed to tackle.

We need a serious discussion about drugs legislation in the UK (and worldwide), we need evidence-based legislative practice, logic and less fear. It’s another cliche, but sometimes it’s better the devil you know and we have had many decades to scientifically study substances like cocaine Sulphate, THC and MDMA, so we know their effects on the human body. This is important: we know, quite accurately, their relative levels of harm to society. We know precious little, often nothing at all, about these research chemicals. The clue is in the name.

I believe, that we need to spend more money on dealing with the problems of addiction and stop spending any money on fighting a war that was lost sometime around 1960. Alternatively, we can continue with the cycles of restriction, control and prohibition towards emerging substances; we can continue pushing users towards newer and increasingly dangerous substances, the long term effects of which we can only begin to guess at. If we do this and maintain the status quo, it is my belief that people will start dying. As a society, it’s not too late, we can prevent that happening.

We live in an age requiring that we step out from beneath the fear around drugs thrust on us all by the national media and recognise that legalisation, for a huge swathe of reasons, is the right, the moral and the only option for addressing this hugely important social issue.

Please Note

Writing a post in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs is not the same as advocating the use of drugs. Please bear that in mind, I really don’t care either way whether you do or don’t use drugs (past/present/future). If you are going to read this and suggest that I am advocating drug use, then you’re an idiot.

Also, if you’re going to tell me about your brother/auntie/uncle/cousin who got addicted to Heroin/Cocaine/Crystal Meth and try and use that as the basis for a counter-argument, you will have already failed. So, let me save you the time.

And finally, Something to think about

There are many interesting books (and many not-so) on the history of drugs. Amongst my favourites is The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Cultural Anthropologist Jeremy Narby. Narby makes the controversial suggestion that human intelligence and language, The very building blocks of the first human societies, arose from the ritual use of hallucinogenic plants and roots. He makes a fascinating case and it is well worth a read.

Few people have ever summed up the war on drugs better than the genius that is Bill Hicks:

Further Reading

Transform Drugs Policy Foundation: Alternative world Drugs Report

Professor David Nutt – Evidence not Exaggeration Blog

Moron Watch: Category – War on Drugs

Esquire: Legalize Everything

Huffington Post: To win the War on Drugs follow the states

So, you know the drill, if you don’t like these thought, stick around, I have plenty of others.


2 Responses to “Because the Drugs (Legislation) Don’t Work”


  1. Because the Drugs Legislation Don’t Work | weeklyblogclub - September 23, 2012

    […] Because the Drugs Legislation Don’t Work by Paul Coxon. […]


  2. Challenging habits, challenging thoughts | weeklyblogclub - September 24, 2012

    […] it in the Weekly Blog Club tweet stream when I was doing the Week 37 summary*: Paul Coxon’s Because the Drugs Legislation Don’t Work. Paul challenged the idea that making some drugs illegal helps to stop deaths and the problems that […]


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