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Decriminalising narcotics


British Columbia, a province of western Canada, has decided, with federal government support, to decriminalise the possession of opioids (e.g. heroin), cocaine and MDMA (methamphetamine) for a period of three years from 31 January 2023. Of the principal recreational narcotics, amphetamines ('Speed') is not included and marijuana is addressed via a different legislative regime.


The decriminalisation policy provides that anyone caught by the Police with up to 2.5 grammes of any of the decriminalised substances will not be arrested or charged, although the substance may be taken from them. (This latter part is not clear.)


The Canadians should be commended for a more transparent decriminalisation policy than some countries have tried. The United Kingdom has implemented a decriminalisation policy for small amounts of all recreational narcotics, but it is applied in the discretion of the Police. Some Police forces, and some Police Officers, apply the policy in different ways or not at all. A lot of it depends upon regional attitudes. London applies the policy most liberally; North Yorkshire almost not at all. But you cannot find that written down in the rule books.


This element of discretion is obviously undesirable, as citizens ought to know where they stand. Are they liable to arrest and prosecution for engaging in certain activities, or not? As a principle of rule of law, this must be clear and the British decriminalisation rules (that have existed for several years) fail the rule of law test whereas British Columbia passes it. This is important. You ought to be able to know exactly what you can and cannot lawfully put in your pockets when you walk down the street. Either an activity attracts the ignominy of criminal law and the risk of penalty, or it does not. The traditional problem with decriminalisation approaches is that they leave that issue vague; British Columbia's approach corrects that.


There are a number of other countries with decriminalisation policies in which the practice is vastly more obscure; Mexico, Argentina and Colombia are three of them. It is unfair to knock the British Police approach too hard, in comparison with some countries' decriminalisation regimes that are difficult to distinguish from extortion.


In both the United Kingdom and British Columbia the law leaves untouched the position of drug suppliers and importers; they commit very serious crimes that are prosecuted and can be punished with long prison sentences.


This is incongruous. If it is legal to own something, why should it not be legal to supply it? The matter might be regulated, as is the sale of many pharmaceuticals (and as is cannabis in Canada); but total prohibition of supply of something it is legal to own is quite absurd and leads to the institutionalisation of criminal gangs to take the place of regulated pharmacists.


The stated logic of decriminalisation is different under each regime. Under the British Columbian regime, the purported rationale is to encourage people to seek medical attention for overdose. This is facetious. Canadian medical ethics preclude medical practitioners from reporting persons admitted to medical treatment to the Police the fact that a patient has taken an unlawful narcotic. This is the regime in most civilised countries. Only countries infected with administrative barbarism do not follow this rule. So the stated rationale for Canadian decriminalisation is vacuous; the social policy injury it is imagined is being suppressed does not exist.


In the United Kingdom the professed rationale for decriminalisation is typically cited as avoiding wasting police time. This is a curious sort of logic; it can surely only be a waste of police time to enforce a law if the law they are enforcing is unjust, unfair, egregious or oppressive, a series of assertions which the British authorities are not prepared explicitly to adopt because it would entail that laws preventing (regulated) supply are unjust too.


The very worst situation is to permit ownership of unregulated narcotics but not to regulate their sale. This entails that consumers will buy dangerous fake or mixed products from criminals. We let the criminals run riot through a decriminalisation policy. It is absurd to proceed in this way.


Decriminalisation is a legal fudge, the purpose of which is to legalise the consumption of recreational narcotics without causing politicians political blowback from their conservative voters, by fabricating an incoherent argument for a half-way house.


Nevertheless decriminalisation, for whatever ostensible reason, is a step in the right direction. Let us explain why.


Here are some incontrovertible assertions:


  1. The consumption of many unlawful recreational narcotics is harmful to the self and potentially to others, if excessive quantities are taken.

  2. The same is true of many lawful recreational narcotics, including alcohol and tobacco. Indeed they may be worse because those two in particular cause greater harm to third parties than to the consumer. The consumer has a choice about whether to harm himself or herself, which arguably ought to be respected. Third parties - the victim of a violent incident inflicted by a drunk, for example - do not.

  3. There is an incoherence in the law that permits regulated sales of some harmful narcotics (alcohol, tobacco) but prohibits regulated sales of others.

  4. There is nothing intrinsically immoral or evil in consuming recreational narcotics. There is something immoral or evil in consuming them in a way that harms involuntary third parties.

  5. Consider the following rough and ready comparison. The effects upon mental cognition of an Ecstasy tablet (MDMA) are perhaps equivalent to those of drinking three pints of weak beer, only there is less damage to the liver and no contribution to obesity of the pill compared to the beer. Now a person who takes too much Ecstasy (for example three pills) might become a public menace; but so might a person who drinks nine pints of beer. It is illogical to prohibit one and just regulate the other.

  6. The law ought to focus on third party harms, rather than on the self-inflicted harms. Hence the rule prohibiting smoking indoors in public buildings is a good one. The handful of countries that have not yet adopted this rule cause vastly more damage to their citizens than any rules relating to other recreational narcotics. Cigarettes are killers. If you smoke cigarettes in the presence of others, you cause potentially fatal harm to them just as you do to yourself.

  7. If the law permits base-jumping (an extremely dangerous form of parachute jumping in which the participant jumps off a cliff with not a parachute but a small pair of plastic wings - mortality rate 0.04% per jump, so statistically you are likely to die once every 3,000 base-jumps) then it is impossible to render that permission consistent with prohibition of the taking of virtually all recreational narcotics, none of which will kill you anywhere near once every 3,000 uses. (Incidentally, Switzerland requires base-jumpers to buy an insurance policy to indemnify farmers in the event that the base-jumper kills himself landing on grazing cattle, one of the most foresighted 'recreational narcotics' policies we have ever heard of.)

  8. The policy case for prohibiting ownership (and hence regulated sale) of recreational narcotics is hopeless, and decriminalisation is just a politicians' fix.

  9. Continued criminalisation of amphetamine, curiously excluded from the British Columbian decriminalisation list, is illogical given that heroin, a drug that causes more damage both to the user and greater physical dependence, is included. There are several other inexplicable inconsistencies.

  10. The most logical policy approach towards the use of recreational narcotics, whether currently legal or illegal, includes the following elements.

  11. Firstly, public information, so that consumers and third party victims alike might know more about this risks associated with the consumption of narcotics.

  12. Secondly, legalisation of recreational narcotics consumption, on the basis that the social costs of criminalisation vastly outweigh the marginal social costs of use. The utilitarian comparison to be made in asking whether to legalise narcotics is a straightforward one. You need to compare the social policy benefits of criminalisation, which are miniscule (everyone who wants to just takes drugs anyway - the proven deterrence effect of criminalisation is zero), whereas the social policy damage caused by criminalisation is high in the form of promoting criminalisation of a part of society.

  13. Thirdly, regulation and taxation of manufacture, export / import and sales. This creates a substantial rule of law benefit, as well as raising taxes that are otherwise money going into the pockets of criminal gangs.

  14. Fourthly, removal of stigma associated with the consumption of recreational narcotics (to somewhere approximating the stigma associated with consumption of alcohol or tobacco), together with free (state- or philanthropy-paid) treatment of persons with addiction problems that are causing problems to themselves and/or others.

  15. In this context, both British Columbian and British decriminalisation policies fall short. Address a problem rationally, and you are more likely to get a rational result.


Chart courtesy of a British psychiatric addiction specialist, Dr X. Y., for which many thanks.


Drugs are a problem that can be solved. We just need philanthropists' money and politicians' wisdom. The fact that we can get neither is a crisis of our times, one every bit as dangerous as war and climate change. We must fight hard, against vested interests and fools' wisdom, if we are going to solve the global drugs pandemic. Because with the globally low prices of freight (the cost of moving goods around the world), and the ever cheaper costs of narcotics manufacture (cocaine now costs less than USD1 per gram to manufacture in Colombia), the problem is only going to get worse.


Are the rich and powerful of our era going to act, or are they going to overlook the problem because they do not have the guts? With great power comes great responsibility.


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We wish to thank an unnamed officer of a British Police Force for his contributions to this article.