"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 29 March 2010

Legal Vs. illegal highs

Here’s a subject that keeps coming up. It has nothing to do with atheism, but a lot to do with rationality and the wisdom of relying on scientific evidence instead of gut instinct.
We have got our knickers in a complete twist over drug laws in this country (the same is true for others, particularly the U.S). We have made all the drugs we disapprove of illegal (as opposed to the ones that attract taxes, like tobacco and alcohol) and even gone to the lengths of classifying them in terms of perceived (note perceived) harm done and assign legal penalties accordingly.
The result of all this, one might suppose, would be to curtail the sale and use of these substances. But actually, no! There is no evidence that a drugs illegality has any bearing on whether people choose to take it or not. As for curtailing sales, it has the opposite effect as its very illegality has a direct bearing on the market price of a drug and hence the attractiveness to criminals to import/manufacture and distribute (a trade, which incidentally, directly funds terrorism).
The particular event that has spurred this post is the recent interest in Mephedrone which the government wants to ban following a spate of deaths linked to its use. Mephedrone is a “legal high”, marketed rather cynically as plant food but is in fact synthesised and intended to be used as a drug. It is functionally similar to Methamphetamine and is psychoactive. It has become a recreational drug of choice amongst young people, partly as a direct result of its legality. The government may be temporarily thwarted in its attempt to ban it due to the resignation a member of the Drugs Advisory Panel whose former director Professor David Nutt was sacked last year for briefing against government policy. This may be a good thing, for it will spur a debate about the wisdom of rushing to make new substances illegal.
The first question that has to be asked is, has Mephedrone become popular because it is legal, or because the usual alternatives are illegal? The assumption of many seems to be the former, but I’m not so sure. The second question is, once made illegal will that a) curtail its use, b) make it more attractive to users and sellers alike or c) stimulate the lab to invent something else to market legally? The third question needs to be, what would be the effect of legalising and regulating all drugs rather than trying to ban each new substance as it appears?
One opinion that has been trotted out a lot over the last couple of days is that Mephodrones legality implies to many drug users that it is safe, which maybe true of a naïve few. But in my experience most drug users do not equate legality or illegality with the relative safety of drugs. In fact due to the government’s insistence on classifying commonly used drugs like Marihuana in category B “to send signals” and contrary to the advice of its own advisors there is zero confidence in drug classification as a guide to risk.
The effect of criminalising the current users of this drug will be to increase the price, make it attractive to drug traffickers and encourage its trade through an un-regulated black market. Prof Nutt, who has set up his own rival expert body, has warned that banning Mephedrone could be self-defeating and that the evidence supporting a ban was not clear.
On the other hand, taking the radical step of legalising, taxing and regulating all drugs would remove the initiative from the criminal element, ensure that drugs on the market were pure and contained what they purported to contain, give revenue to governments to educate users and treat addictions and disincentivise labs from inventing new recreational highs. The drugs advisory panel could then classify drugs in a politically unbiased way that would gain the public’s confidence and help society to manage the problems that undoubtedly come from the reckless abuse of all substances. We have a good track record with alcohol, a drug that the majority of users treat responsibly. We have the mechanisms and the model in place.
Time to change the dogma? I think so.

1 comment:

  1. An important subject, but it boils down to this: you can't formulate a coherent drugs policy based solely on moral disapproval. The solution? Legalize everything: the cost to society would be considerably less.

    Although I have considerable personal experience of some illegal drugs, my only post on the subject relates drugs to religion: