Updated 20 February 2013

Should we legalise drugs?

Won't it be easier to control the use of drugs if it were legalised?


Won't it be easier to control the use of drugs if it were legalised? This is a question Professor J.P.deV. van Niekerk, managing editor of the South African Medical Journal asked in an editorial piece in the February edition of the journal.

Illegal drug use is on the rise in South Africa and elsewhere. This is despite great efforts by law-enforcement agencies, both local and international, that work tirelessly to curb the trade in illegal drugs.

Drug use throughout history

"Humans have always taken psychoactive substances and prohibition has never kept them from doing so. The international evidence suggests that drug policy has very limited impact on the overall level of drug use. Making people criminals for taking psychoactive substances is in itself criminal, for one is dealing with, at worst, a vice but not a crime," says Van Niekerk.

History has shown that people use drugs, whether it is legal or illegal to do so. And by criminalising this activity, users are branded as criminals, demonised and ostracised from society. This stigma does little to promote users coming forward and asking for help.

"People with a history of drug problems are seen as blameworthy and to be feared. Stigma is a major barrier to their successful recovery and prevents them from playing a more positive role in communities and re-integrating into society."

 The money and efforts spent in trying to prevent people from using drugs, and to catch and jail those who do, could have been spent on education and rehabilitation of users. Helping them to overcome the addiction and integrate them back into society, instead of giving them a criminal record and time in jail where they will be exposed to real criminals.

"Policy should aim to reduce the harm that drugs cause, and not to embroil more people in the criminal justice system," says Van Niekerk.

Drug cartels and dealers

Legalising drug would not mean giving free reign to dealers to open up shop wherever they like without fear of prosecution. Instead, it means that sale and use will be more controlled.

"Making drugs illicit cedes the control to the drug dealers," reads Van Niekerk's report. This is to say that by not recognising the sale and use of drugs, government gives drug dealers control over what goes into it, and where and to whom it is sold. Not to mention all the tax-free money he makes on the sale of drugs.

"Improved state control of substances, as with alcohol and cigarettes, could provide taxes and significantly reduce the roles of drug dealers," Van Niekerk notes.

Tobacco, alcohol more dangerous

Van Niekerk argues that despite enormous efforts and funds going towards the regulation of drugs, by far the most damage to individuals and societies are done through the use of alcohol, cigarette smoking and prescription drugs – all of which are legal.

In a 2007-study, researchers determined that tobacco and alcohol together account for about 90% of all drug-related deaths in the UK. "They [alcohol and tobacco] are the most widely-used unclassified substances, but were both ranked [in the study] in the top 10 higher-harm group and cannabis (marijuana) in the lower 10 (out of 20)."

What this result, and Van Niekerk's argument highlights, is that our and most other governments allow the sale and use of substances responsible for 90% of drug-related deaths to anyone over the age of 18, but will send you to jail for using something less dangerous and less addictive and which has less harmful effects on families, communities and society.

"It is time to face realities squarely and rationally debate the question of decriminalisation. Vested interests in maintaining the status quo will have unexpected support from those who stand to lose the most, namely the drug dealers and those they pay," Van Niekerk concludes.

This article highlights the main points of a commentary piece by V. van Niekerk in the February issue of the South African Medical Journal and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Health24. Join the debate on this issue by leaving a comment in the box underneath the article.


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