Debate Points – Case for the Legalisation of (some) Drugs

Debate points for the legalisation and regulation of the sale of cannabis and drugs similar to ecstasy and LSD. (and for heroin and cocaine and other harder drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one).


Current Drug Laws in the Uk are not fit for purpose. £3 billion is wasted every year on drugs policies which were made decades ago with no knowledge of what things would be like in the 21st century.  Half a million people take ecstasy every week in the Uk, and over 3 million people take cannabis each year. Dozens die from ecstasy use, and cannabis is becoming increasingly dangerous as supplies become more and more potent. Meanwhile, each year, thousands of people are given criminal records as a result of their own decisions regarding their own body. And potential benefits to legalisation are missed.

Below are debate points for anyone wishing to make the argument that these drugs should be legalised and that stronger drugs should be decriminalised. I think it’s a pretty comprehensive argument and welcome any feedback.

Personal Liberty Argument

First of all, you have to start by agreeing with whoever you’re debating with; why any drug should be illegal. The personal liberty argument for legalisation would go that any responsible adult must be able to choose what they do with their body so long as they are not harming others. (There are caveats to this which we will deal with later.) In this way, we let people drink alcohol, gamble, play sports etc. Hand gliding isn’t ‘safe’, but if you enjoy it, are an adult and are happy to take the associated risks, then why not do it?

Now, yes, there are caveats. Stopping people from harming themselves is the sort of thing a decent society does for its citizens. If you’re mentally ill, suicidal etc Equally, we make people wear seatbelts because it is in their interest and overwhelmingly the benefits to their safety outweigh the downside of the inconvenience. Equally, a government/society can take it upon itself to encourage behaviour which is beneficial to one’s life/health – not smoking, not drinking to excess, having flu shots etc As it’s only right that we try to reduce the overall burden to the NHS which we all pay for.

But when it comes to drugs like cannabis and ecstasy, the evidence suggests that the risks to the individual are much, much less significant than many other practices. Cannabis, for example, doesn’t kill those who use it. Ecstasy is, as Prof Nutt was fired for pointing out, about as dangerous as horse riding. Should these substances not be legal if their dangers are no greater than many other perfectly legal things?

If a drug is addictive, it is also legitimate to make it illegal to discourage its use. This is one of the reasons curbing tobacco smoking can be viewed as much more legitimate an action of government than the curbing of alcohol use. To the vast majority, alcohol can be taken or left. To the vast majority cigarettes can not.

So what of cannabis and ecstasy? Well, to all extents, they seem to be in the same category as alcohol, or are less addictive. Cannabis is considered to have no physically addictive side, whilst ecstasy is generally considered even less addictive still. So any argument that encompasses cannabis and ecstasy for their addictive quality will also have to bring about the outlawing of alcohol.

You may encounter the argument of psychological addiction. Whilst psychological addiction is not something to be waved away or ignored, it has to be pointed out the psychological addiction can occur with nearly anything. The internet is psychologically addictive. Try banning that. Unless you’re China, in which case, don’t.

Be careful not to link cannabis and ecstasy to alcohol and cigarettes too much, as you’ll otherwise encountered the argument; if classified today, alcohol and tobacco would be made illegal / we would make alcohol and tobacco illegal if not for the fact they’re socially accepted.

To the first argument, ask ‘and would that be right?’ or try using examples of alcohol in place of cannabis and ecstasy. ‘So, you think it should be punishable by up to seven years in prison for the possession of a bottle of becks at a rave?’ To the second, ask why we don’t just make alcohol and tobacco illegal? Point out we know what would happen, as we already have a case study; 1930s America and prohibition. That is basically the present day situation we have with cannabis and ecstasy. If we’d seek to avoid that scenario, why not the current one with drugs?

The Pragmatic Approach

This argument, I would call the pragmatic approach. Its one based on doing the best thing from a public policy point of view. The aim is to point out the harm prohibition of drugs does to society and how legalisation and regulation can lead to benefits for society.

So, prohibition is bad for society. Why?

Point 1: Prohibition makes it more likely drugs will get into the hands of those who shouldn’t have access to them (kids/teenagers) whilst preventing them getting to people who may benefit from them (older people / PTSD sufferers etc).

Point 2: Prohibition means than criminals and gangs are granted a means of making money which they can use to finance other criminal activities.

Point 3: Prohibition results in more harm than legalisation would.

Point 4: Prohibition stifles scientific research into the harms and benefits.

Point 1: Prohibition makes it more likely drugs will get into the hands of those who shouldn’t have access to them (kids/teenagers) whilst preventing them getting to people who may benefit from them (older people / PTSD sufferers etc).

By all counts, teenagers and cannabis/ecstasy shouldn’t be allowed to mix. There is a wealth of evidence regarding the damage it can cause to their brain development – as there is regarding alcohol and teenagers…

Equally, even an anti-legalisation campaigner would have to accept cannabis has potential medicinal uses, and that there may well be some for ecstasy as well (as the Channel 4 funded study hopes to demonstrate in regards to Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder). This is a nice link for anyone unwilling to accept the point:

Plus you can always point out cannabis has been legalised in various US states for exactly this purpose.

So, teenagers should definitely not have it, older people and people with various illnesses may well benefit from them, and most of the evidence is pointing towards it being neutral for the adult recreational user*. So why is it illegal? After all, drug dealers don’t ask for ID. Drug dealers specifically focus their attention on schools and universities. Drug dealers on street corners are hardly likely to be approached by a pensioner… So what the hell are we doing with the current system?

Yes, alcohol and tobacco get into the hands of young people despite them not being allowed to purchase it, but legalisation would at least allow the police to target their efforts on preventing it getting to young people, we can send people to prison for doing something wrong – providing kids with the drugs – rather than using it themselves and by legalizing the drugs we can lift the ‘evil, evil, evil,’ veil and ACTUALLY educate kids about them. Aka, drugs have the following positives, following negatives and you’ll get to experience them when you get older, in the meantime, they’ll fuck with you big time.

* Professor Terrie Moffit, one of the authors of a recent paper showing how cannabis use could reduce the IQs of teenage cannabis users concluded: “It’s such a special study that I’m fairly confident that cannabis is safe for over-18 brains”

Meanwhile on ecstasy.

Point 2: Prohibition means than criminals and gangs are granted a means of making money which they can use to finance other criminal activities.

The Uk drugs market is estimated to be worth somewhere in th region of £5 billon, maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more, I’ll admit, I picked this number because its one of the simpler ones, but hopefully that’ll stick in your head.

Now, obviously cannabis and ecstasy don’t comprise all of that, but imagine the hit to organised crime that even a small amount of that would mean. With the decriminalization of heroin and cocaine et al as well, billions could be removed from the hands of criminals. The legalisation and taxation of cannabis and ecstasy, meanwhile, could generate hundreds of millions in tax revenue for the government. So, the simple question that has to be asked is why are we letting criminals make a killing on this – which they then use to fund other criminal activities – when we – the public/society/government could be?

Yes, there’ll always be crime and gangs and all that. But legalizing cannabis, for instance, would make a big dent in illegal trafficking of people. Illegal immigrants are often used to guard cannabis farms. Ecstasy, meanwhile, is a drug dealer’s staple, which can be made in a lab with not too much difficulty. Drugs are often cited as the ruin of many young people in gangs. Take away this ruinous activity and hopefully something more productive will fill the void instead.

Point 3: Prohibition results in more harm than legalisation would.

How? Several ways; the simplest way is to point out that the cannabis and ecstasy which you’ll buy from a drug dealer could well be more harmful than the same drugs from a regulated supplier. Drugs bought from illegal sources can be tampered with in many ways so that they’re not ‘pure’. Cannabis has been known to be mixed with many things – glass is common to increase its weight and provide the false impression of potency by imitating THC crystals. Ecstasy meanwhile (like any pill) can be mixed with an array of things again. On the less harmful side will be things like caffeine, on the more dangerous, could be other drugs, and adulterants which could potentially lead to a deadly combination.

There’s also the issue of regulating strength. Cannabis can vary in THC strength from between 3% and 16% in any given sample. Meanwhile, modern growing techniques and the striving for higher THC levels have led to a decrease in the levels of CBD (which has been highlighted for its medicinal properties and ability to counter many of the worst effects of THC). A regulated quality of cannabis can be produced to a regular level of THC and have a significant level of beneficial CBD present. Without this regulation, cannabis buyers are subject to not knowing whether they’re purchasing the equivalent of a can of weak lager or a bottle of vodka.

The same is true for ecstasy, where the purity and strength can vary wildly. Allowing people to know how much it is they’re taking is one of the key aspects of education and giving adults the ability to make educated decisions for themselves.

Then there are legal highs. Eveytime one drug is criminalised, a string of others are simply created to fill the gap. These legal highs can often be more dangerous than the drug they are replacing and give the perception of safety to the user for the fact they are legal. Make cannabis and ecstasy legal, find out more about them, and prevent dangerous substitutes making it into the market place.

Finally, when talking about harms, remember that for many people, the greatest harm having a joint of cannabis or pill of ecstasy will ever bring for them is a criminal record. Keep such people out of the criminal justice system and let it handle the real criminals.

You can also bring many of the arguments from point 2 into this; preventing young people getting hold of it, better education etc

Point 4: Prohibition stifles scientific research into the harms and benefits.

Channel 4’s study into ecstasy was the first to actually get people who’d taken ecstasy into an MRI scanner. Cannabis has very few studies to its name in which more than a couple of dozen participants were used. How can we criminalize these drugs when so little is known and when there could well be benefits from them that we haven’t yet found. It is funny that one of the most common argument’s against these drugs is the ‘we don’t know the long term effects’ one. One of the reasons is due to the criminalization. And the obvious counter argument is that we equally don’t know about the long term benefits of these drugs either… so let’s find out.

If someone argues that just because the drug is illegal doesn’t mean there’ll be research, the best thing you can is laugh in their face. The illegality makes it very, very difficult for a) permission and b) funding to be acquired for any such study. a) because you’ve got to jump through whatever hoops the government lays down for you and b) because who would fund a study into an illegal drug when there are so many legal ones about, or when you can put your resources into making a new (legal) one.

The Benefits of Legalisation

Tax revenue; if legalised, we can tax and generate revenue from the drugs. This money can be spent on policing, education and health care, directly helping to manage the negatives legalisation will bring. Atm, we have no such means of financial gain from prohibiting its use. Indeed we waste billions each year on ineffective policy.

Medicinal; there are many potential medicinal uses, and the lack of scientific enquiry means there could well be many more. Don’t let people suffer when it could so easily be avoided. Point 1 for more detail.

Hemp: Hemp has many uses and could well offer farmers a decent revenue stream in many countries. The illegality of cannabis however, makes it very difficult to get permission to grow hemp.

Lower uptakes of other drugs: It’s been postulated that legalizing cannabis and ecstasy will lead to a decline in the use of alcohol. Given the two drugs are safer, less addictive and lead to less violence, it seems legalisation would give an added knock on effect to society at large.

Hit to organised crime. See above.

Less harm. See above.

Why legalize and Not decriminalize?

So why this method – legalisation – rather than decriminalization of cannabis, ecstasy et al?

Well, basically because you get more positives and fewer negatives. If these drugs are only decriminalised we miss out on tax revenue, cannot regulate the supply of the drug and won’t deny that much of the criminal gang’s incomes from the drugs. (Though allowing cannabis growers to grow a few plants would help.)

The only case for decriminalization over legalisation really comes from the personal liberty POV.

How would such a policy work?

I’ll be making a separate post on this issue and link to it here.

And finally some counter arguments to assuage;

Legalisation will lead to many more people taking the drugs and so a greater level of harm than keeping them illegal would.

There’s not much evidence to support this. When Cannabis was reclassified to Class C, down from Class B, consumption of it FELL. Levels of cannabis use in the Netherlands are roughly the same as here (despite its more laxed legal classification). Portugal have decriminalised cannabis use and not seen a major rise in uptake of the drug.

It’s probably fair to say most people who really want to take the drug probably will whether its legal or not. If uptake does surge upon legalisation, all it means is greater tax revenues and fewer people taking the more harmful drug ‘alcohol’.

Cannabis and ecstasy are gateway/stepping stone drugs.

The definition of a gateway drug is basically one people take before going on to harder drugs / more illicit drugs. By this definition, alcohol is a gateway drug. Tobacco is a gateway drug. Caffeine and sugar are gateway drugs. People taking cannabis or ecstasy does not mean they’ll automatically take another drug.

Also, think about it this way; at the moment, when people buy drugs, they go to a drug dealer. The drug dealer has no interest in the personal health and wellbeing of the client. Given an addictive drug is more likely to result in repeat custom and therefore more money for the drug dealer, they have an interest to persuade their client into trying the most addictive drug they can get hold of. As such, rather than going to a Dutch style coffeeshop and buying cannabis in a regulated environment, the current system encourages going to someone who will try and get you to takr stronger and more addictive drugs.

There’s no such thing as a ‘gateway drug’, but we do seem to have a gateway system.

We already have two dangerous drugs, why add to the misery?

Because legalizing cannabis and ecstasy may lead to lower rates of consumption of those drugs and because people are going to take them anyway. We may as well make sure people are as well-informed as possible and have access to drugs which are regulated in their quality. Plus it may lead to lower consumption of alcohol. So the ‘misery’ may actually be reduced in total.

Just because people break the law doesn’t mean we should change it. People speed, but we don’t raise the speed limits.

The benefits from raising speed limits are not quite the same as those which can be achieved from legalizing cannabis and ecstasy. The harms of raising speed limits will be many more deaths. The harms in legalizing cannabis and ecstasy would potentially be a lot fewer.

Current Drugs Policy may not be perfect, but it’s got to be better than legalisation.

On the subject of it as policy – think about it objectively. The Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in the 70s. It is totally outdated to tackle problems 40 years later. Equally, think about which policies on drugs have had the greatest success. The downgrading of cannabis to a class C drug based on scientific advice, which led to a fall in cannabis consumption. The handing out of needles to reduce rates of HIV… these were policies adopted based on the science and based on harm reduction. They worked. Why is it so hard to believe that taking just one more step further, basing our policy on science and harm reduction, would result in anything other than better policy?

It’s time drugs policies changed, whether that resulted in legalisation or not, I hope everyone would agree science and harm reduction have to be the corner stones for that new policy, whilst outdated dogma has no place in the debate.

Legitimate Points against

Even amongst the many reasons to legalize, there are still points you just have to concede. Get them out there early to lower their impact and to make a point about it not being a miracle policy.

Drug driving; testing for drugs in the system is not quite as simple as it is for alcohol. Drug driving would be a hell of a nuisance for police to police.

Drugs destroy lives; they do. More so if taken at an early age and most often when taken in large quantities, but they do. Sometimes. Sometimes alcohol does. At least with cannabis and ecstasy its less likely to result in violence and death. But yes, treatment would have to be improved greatly and as a society we’ll have to make sure not to turn a blind eye to people whose lives are being adversely effected, but to make sure their problem is treated. This is a problem to be managed, and it’s probably much more easily managed under regulation than prohibition.

Also bare in mind that many people who’s lives are ruined by drugs, turn to the drugs as a result of other problems in their life. In many ways drug use is a symtom rather than a cause of such ills. Addressing the underlining issues has got to be the priority, banning drugs and so forcing people into criminal and more dangerous activities when the unerlining issue crops up is not doing them anygood and could well be doing a lot more harm.

Drugs and pregnancy; Just like a mother shouldn’t be drinking like a fish or smoking like a chimney whilst pregnant, I’m pretty sure (without even looking at the science) that drugs and pregnancy probably shouldn’t mix. Again, all you can say is that at least with regulation comes the potential for bringing this out into the open. We are deluding ourselves if drug taking during pregnancy doesn’t happen under prohibition. At least under regulation it can be treated more openly, rather than hid because of its criminality.

Higher rates of cannabis smoking will lead to more tobacco smoking; This is sadly true, with much evidence about the damage of smoking joints rolled with tobacco. If cannabis were to be legalised it would have to be accompanied by a public health campaigns focused on getting cannabis users to take the drug separate from tobacco – handing out vaporizers for free in the same was as clean needles are given to heroin users would be a legitimate policy. However, again, point out there’s no reason to suppose rates of cannabis use will increase with legalisation and that getting the message about smoking cannabis without tobacco will be much easier when the drug is legal.

And that’s that. If you know of any other arguments for the legalisation and regulation, then please provide them. If you know of arguments against, not addressed already, then please let me know and I’ll endeavour to provide a rebuttal.


Useful Links:

Misconceptions about Illegal Drug Use

BBC – Possessing small amounts of drugs should not be a crime


About iwastoldtheredbegin

Politics of the Left Wing and Liberal variety, plus gin!
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One Response to Debate Points – Case for the Legalisation of (some) Drugs

  1. Pingback: Friday’s Post « iwastoldtheredbegin

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