What the UK can learn from the US push towards drug legalisation

Voters in states across America have passed landmark drug reform measures.

A photo of cannabis plants

While the US election may be dominating the headlines, other important results are coming in from the roughly 120 ballot measures on policy and constitutional issues across the states.

Voters in a number of states have endorsed landmark measures, including decriminalising all drugs, legalising cannabis and decriminalising psychedelics.

The state of Oregan, for example, is voting on decriminalising possession of a small amount of any drug, while Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and New Jersey have all voted to legalise recreational and medicinal marijuana. They join 11 other states, plus DC – of different political hues – that have liberalised their drug laws in recent years.

Washington DC, which legalised cannabis in 2015 (although it can’t be sold commercially), is voting on legalising psychedelic drugs.

So where does that leave the UK in its treatment of drug use and possession?

Just last week, Britain took a step towards decriminalising cannabis as police chiefs in a West Midlands pilot agreed to exempt repeat offenders from prosecution, The Times reports.

If someone repeatedly uses cannabis, cocaine or heroin there, they won’t get a criminal record if they agree to go on a diversion programme, including rehab.

Nonetheless, the UK is still behind many other countries, including Portugal, which decriminalised possession of a small amount of drugs back in 2001, and the US as mentioned.

The decision around legalisation of use and possession of drugs has its pros and cons. On the one hand, those against legalisation believe it would send out the wrong message. There is a lot yet to discover about the dangers of different drugs, for example scientists have found there may be a link between cannabis use and mental illness.

Moreover, the Centre for Social Justice released a report in 2018, finding that legalising cannabis could lead a lot more people to take it and as many as 100,000 more people to become addicted.

This said, there is also much to be learned from taking steps towards legalising drug use. Those supporting it argue that drug use happens either way, so being able to regulate it will make it safer for those using.

For people who are addicted to drugs, getting caught up in the justice system is not the help they need. Many argue it would be better to legalise use so people are more likely to get the medical help they need. Deaths are also less likely to happen if people feel they are free to get help rather than worrying about the legal implications.

After Portugal decriminalised drugs, it has seen a huge decrease in both HIV infections and drugs-related deaths. In 2001, Portugal saw 80 recorded deaths as a direct result of illicit drug use. In 2012 that number had dropped to 12, as this report shows.

Health Poverty Action, a group working to strengthen poor and marginalised people in their struggle for health, said: “The Home Office won’t legalise cannabis “because it is detrimental to health and mental health”. Criminalising drugs is detrimental to health & people’s lives too. Let’s make drugs & the drugs trade safer with #legalregulation

There are clearly arguments for and against legalising drug use, and there are different levels at which you can do this. But as states across the US pass major drugs-related reforms, it’s an issue the UK must keep on its radar too.

Lucy Skoulding is a freelance reporter at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter. 

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