Good Drugs vs Bad Drugs

There’s been a lot of talk about drugs over the last few days. Most of the commentary has been of the usual desultory level. It’s almost as though people don’t want to have a serious and focussed debate on the dangers of drugs.

There are two facts in particular that almost never get mentioned. And I don’t think that you can have a full and honest discussion on the subject without addressing these points.

Firstly, a drug is just a drug. The Daily Mail commentariat would like you to believe that there are three types of drugs. There are the medical drugs which do good things and make you better when you’re ill. There are the socially acceptable recreational drugs like nicotine and alcohol which everyone knows are bad for you but, hey, everyone has to relax once in a while, right? Then there are the evil drugs which are rightly illegal and are largely responsible for the downfall of society. This distinction is, of course, completely artificial. There is no real difference between the drugs in the three groups. In fact there’s often a large cross-over between the groups – particularly between medical drugs and the evil drugs. The difference is often in the dosage.

The fact that alcohol and nicotine are legal whilst cannabis and cocaine aren’t is simply a historical accident. The laws concerning the legality of these drugs have been passed in a piecemeal manner over the last hundred years or so. There is no logic behind it. If nicotine or alcohol (or even caffeine) were to be discovered today, do you really think there’s any chance that they would be certified as safe for mass consumption? It works the other way too. New drugs often take some time to make it onto the list of proscribed substances and are therefore completely legal whilst the legislation is being worked out. LSD wasn’t illegal in the UK until 1971.

So there’s no way that you can argue that any illegal drug is a “bad drug” and that any legal drug is a “good drug”. The British drug laws simply don’t have that level of cohesion.

Secondly, there’s the argument that a huge proportion of crime is related to drugs use. I’m not going to argue against that (although I think that these figures are often inflated conveniently) but I’m going to point out that a lot of the crime around illegal drugs use is down to the fact that illegal drugs are… well… illegal.

And I don’t mean that if you legalise drugs then you’ll instantly do away with a large amount of illegal activity. That’s true, but it’s a rather obvious argument. I wanted to dig a little deeper in a few areas.

Firstly there’s this idea that drugs like cannabis are “gateway drugs”. That is that once you’re smoking cannabis, you will inexorably be drawn into harder drugs. People expounding this view seem to imply that there’s some kind of magical chemical link that draws people from cannabis to heroin but they can never explain what that is or why the same thing isn’t true of alcohol. To my mind, it’s obvious. People move from cannabis to heroin[1] because the person selling them cannabis really wants to sell them heroin. In general harder drugs are more addictive and more profitable for the dealer so it’s not surprising that some of them will try to up-sell. If you broke that link between the users and the dealers (by, for example, selling cannabis in the same places as tobacco) then cannabis would no longer be a “gateway drug”.

Secondly, a lot of the medical dangers from using illegal drugs come from the methods that dealers use to dilute the drugs. All sorts of nasty things are added to a supply in order to make it go further. A legal and controlled source of drugs would remove a lot of this danger.

And finally there’s the idea that a lot of theft is carried out in order to fund drugs habits; I don’t think legalising drugs would completely solve this problem, but I believe that a legalised and well-controlled drugs industry would lead to lower prices of drugs which could potentially lead to a drop in drugs-related theft.

Nothing I’ve written above should be taken as an argument for legalising drugs. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is that these are points that need to be brought into any reasonable discussion of drugs policy. They are the kind of points that a reasonable government would expect to hear from a reasonable drugs advisor. They are the kinds of points that a reasonable newspaper columnist would raise in an article on the subject.

But they seem to be the kinds of points that seem to be completely frozen out of the discussion whenever I see public debate of drugs policy.

I wonder why that is?

[1] Of course only a tiny proportion of cannabis users actually make this journey.


  1. The reason these kinds of points are ignored that some media outlets like to take a crusading moral standpoint on things like drugs, and that’s much easier if they ridiculously over-simplify things. In reality it’s a complicated issue with many conflicting factors to consider.

    For instance many people end up addicted to opiates such as heroin after long term illnesses requiring painkillers, which are often opiate based. But we don’t want to ban painkillers as a possible ‘gateway’ drug.

  2. I disagree that these points should be made in every article written about drugs policy. I think they should be so well-understood that they don’t need to be mentioned, except perhaps in a “Drugs Policy: The Basics” sidebar. Taken together, they constitute a reasonable starting point for an informed drugs policy debate – but we need more than a starting point, we need an actual informed debate!

  3. Finally, a fact and science based overview on drugs. Legalizing drugs at the level of possession and personal use would be a step in the right direction for the country. I love to see content like this that really has meaning and applies to what’s going on in America today. Cannabis and other drugs are starting to be recognized for what they are and legalization is spreading across the nation.

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