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Decriminalisation of Drugs: A Good Idea?

This article, in no way, promotes or shuns the use of drugs. It merely presents the interpretation of empirical evidence and the implications it gives rise to. ‘Drugs’ will refer to narcotic and psychotropic substances.. For the most part of recent human history, possession of narcotics and psychotropic substances for recreational use has been criminalised due to the belief that these substances necessarily have detrimental effects on society. This belief is based on the fact that drugs are inherently addictive and harmful for the human body. However, this is an incredibly linear approach to the issue which has only resulted in stigmatisation of drug usage. Firstly, it is important to make a distinction between ‘usage’ and ‘abuse’. Abuse is essentially the excessive usage of a substance such that it leads to physical or mental harm. To put things into perspective, any substance can be abused, may it be prescription medicines, alcohol or even supposedly innocent items like sugar. So, now a question arises, why is it that only certain drugs like cocaine, heroin, LSD, etc are banned? A plausible explanation is that policy makers and the majority of the public think it is more likely for a person to abuse narcotics/psychotropics as compared to other substances. This is what we’re conditioned to believe based on certain stories and biassed evidence.

Addiction

In the 1960s, experiments were conducted wherein lab rats were put in a cage with two things - regular water and cocaine/heroin water. Majority of the rats kept picking the drug induced water until they overdosed and died. Narrow faceted experiments like such are used to substantiate the current argument regarding addiction and overdose. However, we must also consider the experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology. He tweaked the same rat experiment by removing the cage and instead replacing it with what he called a ‘rat park’. This rat park included activities of entertainment and fulfilment for rats such as the presence of other rats to play with, tunnels, cheese, etc. What he found was that almost all the rats picked spending time in the rat park as compared to drinking the drug induced water. Overdose rates significantly dropped to almost zero from almost 100% in the first experiment. A similar trend was observed in humans as well. During the Vietnam war, almost 20% of the American soldiers were frequently using heroin. And once they returned home after the war, more than 95% of them could immediately stop using the drug and were not addicted to it. This implies that addiction is not a result of drug use, it is a result of the environment in which the drug is being abused. To substantiate this further, Dr Carl Hart, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University found that 85%-90% of people who consume drugs are not addicted to them. And the ones who are addicted, primarily suffer from anxiety, depression, etc or some other underlying issue such as unemployment, social exclusion, etc. Thus, narcotics/psychotropics are not inherently addictive, instead addiction is linked to psycho-social aspects like mental illnesses and one’s position in society, etc. So, it is fair to conclude that drug abuse and addiction occur primarily due to the lack of fulfilling alternatives. When the opportunity cost of abusing drugs is high, then it is less likely that people will abuse them. In other words, if the value that one derives from relationships, bonds, employment, etc is more than the value they would derive from abusing drugs, they are certainly less likely to abuse drugs.

Biological Impact

In the same study conducted by Dr Carl Hart, it was found that most drugs are not any more harmful than alcohol to the human body when used in moderation. Their harmful effects become prominent only if they are tampered with or abused. And it has been repeatedly found that most narcotics/psychotropics in the market are mixed with arbitrary chemicals, making them unsafe to consume. With a blanket ban on drugs leading to rampant black marketing, it is virtually impossible to regulate the quality of these drugs. Therefore, legalising these substances will allow the government to ensure that only the purest form of the product is made available for consumption. This would help in mitigating the harmful physical impact that drugs can potentially have.

Stigmatisation

Criminalisation of drug use has instilled this false narrative regarding drug use which has led to stigmatisation of drug usage. The moment we shun drug users/addicts and treat them like criminals, we exacerbate the problem of addiction or relapse. As mentioned above, the reason for addiction is associated with psycho-social factors. Therefore, fostering an unhealthy or unsupportive environment (including incarceration) for drug users/addicts makes it all the more likely that they get addicted or relapse. Moreover, most overdoses are caused because people are afraid to face prosecution. So, decriminalisation would also ensure that people come forward and get help whenever required, without any hesitation.

Portugal Example

Portugal was facing a nation wide heroin crisis wherein approximately 1% of the country’s population was hooked onto heroin and HIV was widespread. So, in 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs in an attempt to break the stigma and encourage people to get help. This drastically lowered the number of overdoses and addiction rates fell by 50%. They also promoted the use of clean needles and other drug education methods that reduced HIV rates along with increased safety. Moreover, the fact that drug usage did not increase gives us an impression that most people who want to use drugs already use them. So, legalising them wouldn't make much of a difference. Even though this might vary for each country, Portugal’s story is a paradigm of drug decriminalisation gone right. Drugs like heroin, cocaine, etc are legal in Portugal even today.

Comparison with Alcohol

According to WHO and ourworldindata.org, there are more alcohol related deaths as compared to illicit drugs related deaths each year. Now, one might say that this is because there are more alcohol users as compared to illicit drugs. While that is true, it does not show the entire picture. If alcohol were to be illegal, only those who desperately want to use it would make efforts to procure it. Thus, making it more likely that they abuse it and risk their lives. And since most narcotics and psychotropic substances are illegal to consume, the ones who procure them are the ones who are already at a higher risk of abusing them. Thus, if these drugs are legalised, the number of drug related deaths would not increase. This was witnessed by the Portugal example as well.

Economic Implications

The tax revenue from these drugs that the government could generate would be enormous as evidenced by the state-wise tax revenue on alcohol (second largest tax revenue after GST in most states) in India. This revenue could be used for increasing awareness regarding drug use and strengthening the healthcare facilities. Moreover, when people witness first-hand drug usage, the impact that drugs can have will become more transparent and people will make more informed choices. In the book ‘Drug Use for Grown Ups,’ it was found that most people who use drugs are fully functioning and competent members of the society that fulfil their tax, family, etc obligations. Furthermore, this would cut down governments’ expenditure on dismantling cartels and fighting off the war on drugs.

It would reduce violence and crime linked within the ones who supply these drugs as well as black marketing of drugs. As a result, the quality of the product can be regulated such that it becomes safer to the consumer. There could be a system of licensing wherein a consumer can only acquire these drugs legally if they are gainfully employed, mentally and physically fit along with a few other parameters to judge a person’s overall well being. One might argue that buyers who do not qualify for this licence would gravitate towards the black market. While this claim would be absolutely correct, the size of the black market would be far smaller as compared to now. Additional steps can be taken to ensure that the licensing process is convenient such that eligible consumers do not resort to buying drugs from the black market.

CONCLUSION

Drugs have been criminalised and yet, we are seeing an increased number of overdoses and addiction rates each year. This indicates that we have not been able to correctly identify the problem. Drugs aren’t the problem, the problem is the environment in which individuals are forced to indulge in drug use. Drug addiction is a symptom of the underlying issues in a nation such as unemployment, poverty, social marginalisation, etc. Thus, focus should be on mitigating the causes of addiction and overdose rather than eliminating the recreational use of narcotics/psychotropics. Accordingly, decriminalisation should be carried out while keeping in mind various idiosyncratic factors about the state/country under question. However counterintuitive it may sound, this could result in lower addiction rates, lesser overdoses and reduced crime and black marketing.

Yuvraj Sehrawat
Undergraduate Student at SRCC

References

Books

Drug Use for Grown Ups - Dr Carl Hart

Websites
https://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park

https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol

https://ourworldindata.org/drug-use

https://time.com/longform/portugal-drug-use-decriminalization/

https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-states-are-so-keen-about-excise-duty-on-liquor-6393643/

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