The side effects of taking some illegal drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis can include paranoia, fear and bouts of irrationality.  It seems debating their classification can induce the same effects. 

The sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary last week demonstrates the level of fear and polarisation that dominates the drugs debate. 

Why does fear continue to trump facts when it comes to drugs?  Professor Nutt’s dismissal raises significant questions about the utility (futility?) of evidence-based approaches to policy, particularly in the area of drugs.  Few policy areas are as polarised.   Any attempt to consider the possibility of a regulated drugs market is labeled as pro-advocacy; any hesitancy about regulation as dogmatically pro-criminalisation.

For the past couple months Demos has been designing a new project of work that seeks to crack this stymied debate. We're seeking to apply systems theory to imagine what the world could potentially look like if drugs were regulated as opposed to criminalised. Without imagining what such a world would entail makes it impossible to move beyond the current impasse.

Scenario-based planning is rarely applied to this field of policy.  By imagining the consequences of an alternative drug policy we can begin to apply a consequentialist moral framework to the question of drugs, as opposed to the current political principle tug-a-war.  What if regulating drugs led to a significantly better world with fewer drug users, billions of dollars saved on enforcement efforts and a neutralised criminal underworld?  In 2003 – 2004 the economic and social costs associated with Class A drug use in England and Wales were about £15 billion, 90 per cent of which were the result of drug-related crimes.  How much of these costs could be translated to surplus if drugs were regulated?

Finally, a number of developments in Central and South America (which you can read about here,  here and here) demand us to take the idea of de-criminalisation seriously at least to the extent of considering the possible consequences.  For many, to open up the debate to consequentialist arguments is simply too frightening:  what if the world does look to be a better place on balance if drugs were regulated?  On the other hand, what if it looks worse? 

The main goal of this project is to initiate a number of strands of enquiry that would enable drug policy debates to be better informed. To be clear this is not an advocacy project. It is an attempt to move beyond advocacy, beyond criminalisation and beyond the fear that has mired this area of policy.  A much-needed rational approach to the debate about drugs policy must start with a consideration of the likely consequences. 




Good blog and it is encouraging to see signs of this sort of thinking emerge in the UK (The Economist ran a couple of articles supporting a debate on this recently).

Policy aside, the real effects of drugs, and the "war on drugs" is what matters.

More people hurt themselves, and people around them, with drugs than ever before; more people are addicted to drugs than ever before; in the US and the UK, more people are in jail as a result of drugs-related offences than ever before; more money is spent on policing and halting the drugs trade than ever before.

We have been throwing troops, police, money and education at stopping drugs for 40 years. We have got nowhere. Let's try something different.


Too often people link support for legalization with advocacy. I have studied the issue of drugs for many years, and it has slowly become ever clearer that we must radically re-work our approach. Putting people in jail for using a substance less harmful than legal ones (Cannabis vs. Alcohol and Tobacco) is not only immoral, it is ineffective. Since marijuana was made illegal, use has skyrocketed and shows no sign of declining in any permanent way.

There is also a problematic tendency to claim that "legalizers" want drugs available to everyone. That's not true. In North America, if you ask a high school student which drug they can most easily obtain, it will not be the legal and regulated ones such as alcohol and tobacco. Instead, because drug dealers don't ask for ID, its illegal ones such as marijuana. Making them legal doesn't mean making them available, but it does mean allowing responsible adults to use the substance in the privacy of their own home.

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