The Drug Debate

by Jessica Howard

Russell Brand at Drugs CommissionPopular comedian and ex-drug addict Russell Brand recently gave a speech in front of the Commons Home Affairs select committee in which he voiced his support of drug decriminalization. The committee is currently looking at the UK’s drug policies, which many have criticized as failing in recent years, and Brand’s words were met with both admiration and outrage from both the committee and various other participants such as anti-cannabis group “Cannabis Skunk Sense” (slightly amusing name, very serious group).

But what would the decriminalization of drugs mean for the country?

As most people who are pro-decriminalization are keen to point out, decriminalization IS NOT legalization. Drugs would still be illegal. However, decriminalization would see drug abuse becoming a health matter rather than a criminal matter, which would mean that users would be treated as having an illness rather than as criminals. Instead of being arrested and face possible jail time for possession, users would have other options, such as paying a fine or attending meetings akin to Alcoholics Anonymous. Dealers and suppliers, however, would still face the full force of the law. Essentially, decriminalization would create more prison space and free up police time to catch the ‘real’ criminals, and allow them to focus their resources on taking down the dealers and suppliers.

Not only that, but decriminalization would cost a damn site less than locking every user up; as Brand said, it would be “a brilliant idea” if the costs of “nicking people for possession” were instead used to fund treatment and honest drug education programmes.

But Russell Brand can’t seem to open his mouth without causing controversy, and this recent speech was no exception. Journalist Peter Hitchens responded by saying that the government had “abandoned many years ago” any real attempt to stop the usage of cannabis and certain Class A drugs. Personally, I don’t believe that lack of information is the problem. It is the lack of honest and truthful information that is the problem. We all remember having to sit through endless school assemblies where we were told that just the smell of cannabis would either turn us into paranoid schizophrenic who needed locking up, or reduce our brains  into thoughtless sacks of mush. In fact, a recent study by The Guardian found that the majority of drug users would be more inclined to quit if the Government provided them with realistic and evidentially supported dangers of drug usage. Overwhelmingly, the drug that most users would choose to give up first was tobacco, for fear of getting lung cancer. But instead of championing for real, hard evidence, Hitchens went on to state that drug use was just ‘wrong’ and that the law should clearly reflect this.

Another argument centred around cocaine use was put forward by Ms Gyngell of the Cannabis Skunk Sense group. She claims that cocaine use is “only common in certain circles” and decriminalization would only encourage the number of users to rise sharply. This is not true.  Cocaine isn’t a drug that is exclusively available to the rich upper classes; like any drug, it is available to whoever looks hard enough for it.

Marginalizing this will only worsen the problem by shunning those who really need help, either through denial or ignorance.

Whether you love or hate Russell Brand, there is no doubt that having experienced the highs and lows of drug abuse his opinion is worth listening to; probably more so than these politicians who admit that yes, they smoked a spliff at university, but they didn’t inhale. As a matter of fact, Brand isn’t the only ‘celebrity’ to have spoken up in favour of decriminalization in the past few months. In March, Richard Branson met with Ian Blair, former commissioner of the Metropolitan police force to argue the case for decriminalization.

He used Portugal as his prime example, one that has kept cropping up throughout the recent debates. In 2001 they abolished all criminalization laws against the use of any drug for personal possession. Their main argument was that fear of prison time would force addicts underground and that locking them all up was more expensive than helping them. Despite initial criticisms the scheme is now seen as a success; by 2009 a study found that drug use amongst teenagers had declined, and the rate of new HIV infections through sharing dirty needles dropped, whilst the number of people seeking help for drug addiction more than doubled.

The decriminalization of drug use is an issue that will no doubt be debated for some time, and whatever the outcome it is bound to be controversial. No-one can deny that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been less of a war and more of an ongoing struggle for the government, and that new tactics are definitely needed. By UK standards, decriminalization may be a radical but necessary approach to tackling drug use; necessary for the people, for the country and the economy as a whole.