According to official figures, drug treatment programs in the UK have had disappointing success in drug rehabilitation. Several health care professionals have called for the decriminalization of illegal drugs. A head-to-head (debate) in this week’s British Medical Journal (BMJ) debates the topic.

Yes – Decriminalize

A well thought-out policy would lower burglaries, gun crime, prostitution, and cut the prison population by 50%. Tax revenues would be increased as well, says Kailsh Chand, a GP (General Practitioner), Lancashire, England. However, politicians would never dare suggest this.

Chand believes that prohibition has failed. The illegal drug trade is not controlled by the government; it is controlled by violent criminal gangs. These gangs’ turf wars simply make gun crime figures much worse. The current policy drives women into prostitution and leaves crime as the only option for low income addicts.

If currently illegal drugs were legalized they would be regulated in the same way tobacco and alcohol are – and more importantly, in Chand’s opinion, heavily taxed. This tax could be channeled into much-needed rehabilitation and education programs.

With gangs out of the equation, legislation would mean users could purchase from places where they would be sure the drugs had not been tainted with other substances. Clear labeling about the risks could be included, as well as guidance on how to seek treatment.

Adults should be free to decide for themselves about the harmful substances they consume, argues Chand.

No – Don’t Decriminalize

Joseph Califano, Chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, USA, believes that decriminalization is not the answer – neither is legislation. We need to channel more resources and energy into research, prevention and treatment. Every individual citizen and institution should take responsibility to combat substance abuse and addition.

If you decriminalize drugs their prices would come down – this would make them easier to buy and more acceptable to use. Califano gives Italy as an example – while personal possession of limited amounts of heroin is generally exempt from criminal sanction, Italy has one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in Western Europe.

Sweden, on the other hand, has a successful restrictive drug policy. Drug consumption was rising rapidly during the 1990s in Sweden. The government decided to tighten drug control, step up police action, set up a national action plan, and create a national drug coordinator. Sweden today has drug use levels 70% below the European average.

Califano adds that evidence is mounting regarding the serious mental illness consequences of cannabis consumption.

One does not make a drug dangerous because it has been prohibited; rather a dangerous drug becomes prohibited precisely because it is dangerous. Liberalizing drug laws would inevitably lead to increased usage among children – hardly a good public health approach.

“Should drugs be decriminalised? Yes”
Kailash Chand
BMJ 2007;335:966, doi:10.1136/bmj.39360.489132.AD
Click here to view Extract online

“Should drugs be decriminalised? No”
Joseph A Califano, Jr
BMJ 2007;335:967, doi:10.1136/bmj.39360.464016.AD
Click here to view Extract online

Written by – Christian Nordqvist