Examining Harm To Drug Users And Society Criminology Essay

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Prohibition 'mandates criminal sanctions for the production, supply and possession/use of certain psychoactive drugs' (Rolles, 2007: 12), and has governed drug policy in the United Kingdom for decades, yet policy is failing to achieve its aim of a drug free society. The Government see prohibition as 'protector of the social order, preventing harm to self and others' (Bean, 2010: 14) however, the prohibition of drugs is counter-productive, causing greater harm to drug users and society which it aims to prevent, so can be considered illegitimate. A change in legislation is required before the harm caused by prohibition is irreversible. Thus, it is essential that all illegal drugs, and not just 'soft' recreational drugs, are legalised as, the most harmful drugs present the potential to cause the greatest harm, and 'are too dangerous to be left in the hands of criminals' (Rolles, 2007: 30), requiring greater government control and regulation to reduce the harms exacerbated under prohibition.

Firstly, this essay outlines the failings of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that currently governs drug policy in the United Kingdom. It is outdated (Rolles, 2007), failing to meet its aims, unscientific, and criminalising, thus is illegitimate as it exacerbates existing harm. John Stuart Mills harm principle will then be outlined, suggesting that the government cannot restrict individual's life choices, as this proves counter-productive and increases harm (Young 1971, cited in Shiner, 2006). The harm prohibition causes to drug users will then be discussed, with drug users currently criminalised and stigmatised, increasing the existing harm of drug use. Legalisation would treat drug use as a 'health issue' (Daily Mail, 2002 cited in Shiner, 2006), encouraging treatment and education initiatives over criminalisation, which merely creates a reluctance to engage in treatment (Buchanan and Young, 2000).

The illegal status of drugs will then be discussed. It increases harm as impurities can lead to drug overdose and drug related deaths due to uncertainty regarding strength (MacCoun and Reuter, 2001). Legalisation could remove adultered drugs from the market (Bean, 2010), reducing the harm created by prohibition. The illegality of drugs also encourages 'high risk behaviours' (Rolles, 2007) such as needle sharing which substantially increases drug related harm, and could be reduced by legalisation (MacCoun and Reuter, 2001). Prohibitionists argue legalisation would create more users (Ruggiero, 1999), yet prohibition itself has exacerbated the number of users and drug related harm (Rolles, 2007), with legalisation prioritising reducing harm over decreasing the prevalence of use.

The harm that prohibition causes to society will then be discussed. Prohibition created an illicit market for drugs creating crime, draining government funds (Kushlick, 2004 cited in Shiner, 2006). Legalisation would abolish illicit markets, placing them under government control, reducing the harm created by prohibition. Prohibitionists argue that legalisation would not reduce crime rates (South, 1999), while Rolles (2007) suggests that drugs would be cheaper, users could be reintegrated into society, rejoin the labour market and earn money to purchase drugs. Prohibition also affects wider society by destabilising producer countries (Rolles, 2007), with legalisation reducing violence created by prohibition, providing such countries with a stable income (South, 1999). A case for legalisation with then be made, as prohibition causes greater harm than it reduces. Legalisation would allow greater control and regulation over substances, allowing harm caused by drug use to be reduced (Rolles, 2007). Suggestions about the effects of legalisation are 'optimistic assumptions' (Bean, 2010: 16), with the true effects impossible to determine.

According to the UKDPC (2008: 1) the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 'provides 'regulatory framework which controls the availability of, and access to, certain substances... [with] criminal penalties... [set in regard] to the risk or harm caused by a drug'. Yet currently causes more harm than it prevents. Firstly, it can be considered out dated (Rolles, 2007), tackling problems exacerbated by the policy itself. As the Police Foundation Report suggests, policy needs reviewing to account for 'modern developments in medical, scientific and sociological knowledge' (2000, cited in UKDPC, 2008: 2), to regain focus on existing problems. For example, there are now significantly more drug users than when the act was created, and Parker (2005) argues that drug use has become normalised among many youths. As current policy focuses on inexistent or intensified problems, it is failing to achieve its aims, and a review is necessary.

Secondly, the Misuse of Drugs Act aims to control the 'availability of, and access to, certain substances' (UKDPC, 2008: 1), yet it is failing to meet these aims as, 'drug use has risen faster under prohibition than at any time in human history' (Rolles, 2007: 25). Policy is driven by the notion that prohibition reduces availability and use, as policy makers should have learnt from the failings of the alcohol prohibition in the United States of America in the 1920's (Rolles, 2007), the opposite actually occurs. Additionally, the aim of a drug free society is one which will never be achieved (Rolles, 2007). Failing to meet its aims, current drug policy has proved counter-productive at reducing harm, making a review in policy necessary.

The Misuse of Drugs Act classifies drugs into categories regarding their harmfulness, however these classifications are unscientific. Alcohol and tobacco are some of the most dangerous drugs, causing substantial harm to health and society. As their use is legal, other drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, and LSD, which the New Scientist (2006) classified as less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, are currently illegal. This suggests that drugs are not classified on the scientific premise of harmfulness, but on moral beliefs that certain drugs are acceptable, while others are not. Therefore, it is unacceptable for drugs to be classified scientifically in regard to harm, when science is not considered.

Lastly, the Misuse of Drugs Act criminalises drug users for what is considered a 'victimless crime', based on the premise that harsh policies will reduce the prevalence of drug use (Rolles, 2007; UKDPC, 2008). Criminalisation however, creates greater problems for drug users, through stigmatisation, marginalisation, thus reducing their chances of giving up drugs. As drug policy is failing to achieve its aims, is outdated, unscientific and criminalises otherwise law abiding citizens, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 currently causes greater harm to users and society, while its hopes of achieving a drug free society are unfeasible, so new drug policy is a necessity.

According to John Stuart Mills the law cannot legally justify, making life choices for individuals when they are only harming themselves (Shiner, 2006) thus, the prohibition of drugs is illegitimate as policies legislate on morals, creating more harm than it reduces. Young (1971) sees legislating on free will as 'counter-productive as it creates a black market, increases drug prices and adulterism and invites criminal involvement' (cited in Shiner, 2006: 67), all of which are the biggest harms associated with drug use, exacerbated by prohibition. Under Mills harm principle, it is unacceptable that the law only restrict certain harmful activities, such as the use of illegal drugs, while the use of legal drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and even dangerous sports are legal (Rolles, 2007).

However, prohibitionists argue that it is acceptable to legislate on an individual's free will as drug use not only affects the individual, but their family and wider society through crime, violence and health costs (Ruggiero, 1999). Their drug use may be the individual's choice, only directly harming themselves, yet has implications that affect wider society. Many can recreationally use drugs without their normal lives being affected, with the harm caused then minimal, their free will should not be restricted for the minority that end up as problematic drug users (Husak, 1992 cited in Bean, 2010). Those who consume alcohol do not have their free will restricted for the minority that become alcoholics, thus it is illegitimate to do so for drug users when the related harm is similar. Through Mills principle it becomes illegitimate for law enforcers to restrict certain dangerous activities, while other potentially harmful activities remain legal, with the restriction of free will unacceptable when it fails to reduce more harm than it creates.

According to Costa 'fewer than 5 per cent of all adults in the world take drugs at least once a year' (The Observer, 2009: 1), and although this figure underestimates the full extent of drug use, due to under-reporting as drugs remain illegal, and as recreational drug use among youths is also excluded from the statistic, drug taking remains a minority activity (Shiner and Newburn, 1999; South, 1999). Yet the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, criminalises this small minority for their consumption of illegal drugs, causing greater harm to them than their drug use, as criminalisation makes it more difficult to get employment, housing, and as suggested by Ruggiero (1992), actually 'accelerates [their] drug-using careers' (cited in Rugggiero, 1999) by removing the opportunity for individuals to outgrow drug taking. With policy focusing on criminalising users, proving ineffective at deterring drug use, less focus is given to treatment and education programmes, and as 'illicit drug use is primarily a health issue' (Daily Mail, 2002, cited in Shiner, 2006: 69) such initiatives could significantly reduce drug related harm, rather than criminalising drug users and exacerbating their problems. Legalisation would stop the criminalisation of drug users, reducing the harm it creates, allowing users the chance to naturally progress out of drug use, and others the opportunity of treatment.

The criminalisation of drug users also leads to further stigmatisation as it is mainly marginal sections of society that are targeted by drug policy (Stevens, 2011), and not the upper-class recreational drug users. Not only are marginalised groups more likely to be criminalised for their drug use, marginalised youths often 'give up on conventional career aspirations... [and] become more vulnerable to damaging patterns of drug use' (Stevens, 2011: 24) thus, are more likely to use drugs, become drug dependent, and be criminalised for their drug use. Therefore, current drug policy is failing to impact underlying problems of social inequality associated with drug use, merely increasing inequality through criminalisation. These problems need addressing before drug use will decline, or any drug policy can be effective.

As current policy criminalises and stigmatises drug users they are reluctant to engage in treatment through fear of attaching further negativity to themselves (Buchanan and Young, 2000). Legalisation could remove these barriers and allow those seeking treatment to engage in it without fear of judgement, allowing addicts to be treated as patients and not offenders (Bean, 2010). A similar approach is currently used in the Netherlands. Through decriminalisation numbers of new addicts have declined, and support is offered to those known users to help reduce their dangerous drug taking habits, attempting to reintegrate them into society (Chand, 2007). Although this has been a successful step for the Netherlands, the same result may not be achieved in the UK. As can be seen with alcohol treatment programmes, significant numbers of addicts do not seek treatment, and alcohol remains a legal drug. Although decriminalisation does reduce the stigmatisation drug user's face, encouraging some users into treatment, legalisation, additionally reduces the harms of adultered drugs and intravenous drug use, with the potential to reduce more drug related harms than decriminalisation. Therefore, legalisation could remove the barrier between drug users and treatment helping to reintegrate them into society.

Information currently received by the general public regarding drugs is often 'misleading and inaccurate' according to Shiner (2006: 67). Youths receive exaggerated stories of the effects of drug use, such as current crystal meth posters, that demonise drug use. Once individuals discover, either through personal use or from friends, that such stories are extreme and do not happen to every drug user, they will begin to question the factual content of the information they have received (Shiner, 2006). The small amount of factual information will be disregarded along with the exaggerated stories, which can cause harm especially to those who chose to use drugs as, they are then unaware of the realistic harms of drug use. Legalisation would offer the opportunity to educate users about the real harm of using drugs and offer information to those choosing to use drugs on how to do so safely. Current users do not receive information on how to use drugs, or inject drugs safely (South, 1999), which increases the harm associated with drug use. Therefore, as the information currently received by the public regarding drugs is unacceptable (Shiner, 2006), legalisation would allow those who do choose to use drugs to be educated on how to do so safely, ensuring they are aware of the real harm of such drug use, reducing much of the harm caused by drug use.

The illegal status of drugs under prohibition heightens the health risks associated with drug use itself, increasing the potential for harm to the user. Many illegal drugs become impure through adulteration with other substances. Users then become unsure of the strengths of the drugs they are consuming, which MacCoun and Reuter (2001) believe to be the cause for the majority of heroin overdoses, highlighting that uncertainty of strength can increase the harm associated with drug taking and have significant consequences. The legalisation of drugs could reduce many of the risks created by prohibition, as illegally adultered drugs could be replaced by medically approved ones (Bean, 2010), removing adultered drugs from the market and ensuring users are aware of the strengths of the substances they are consuming, reducing the risk of overdosing, and drug related deaths. Additionally, under prohibition drug users tend to prefer stronger and more harmful substances (Rolles, 2007), which become increasingly dangerous when adultered, as with risks of criminalisation, drugs with the most intense highs become more desirable. Legalisation would remove the illegality of drugs and may encourage and educate users to consume less harmful substances, removing some of the drug related harm that is present under prohibition. The prohibition of drugs presents substantial health risks to users through impure drugs, of unknown strengths, increasing the potential for drug overdoses and deaths, encouraging users to consume the most dangerous drugs, which present the most risk, all of which could be removed by legalisation.

Furthermore, the prohibition of drugs encourages users to engage in 'high risk behaviours' (Rolles, 2007: 35) such as needle sharing, increasing the risks of intravenous drug use as users risk spreading blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis. In 'Eastern Europe/Central Asia... over 60% of HIV infections are due to injecting drug use' (McClure cited in Rolles, 2009: xii) presenting a substantial problem. Current drug policy however, has attempted to diminish drug related harm by introducing needle exchange centres, but these have had a reduced effect on needle sharing due to the opening hours and locations of centres (Bean, 2010), with users trying to avoid further stigmatisation. MacCoun and Reuter (2001) suggest legalisation would provide a better alternative as syringes could be supplied with the drug, proving more convenient for drug users and reducing risk of infection. Although attempts are currently made to reduce the risks of spreading life threatening diseases associated with intravenous drug use, legalisation could further reduce the chances of infection by supplying syringes with certain drugs, consequently reducing the major harm associated with intravenous drug use and substantially reducing the health costs associated with drug use.

Prohibitionists argue that if drugs were more widely available the number of users would rise, increasing drug related costs through health problems, and the prevalence of crime. Ruggiero (1999) suggests that alcohol and tobacco are only as harmful due to their available and legality, thus if illegal drugs became legal the associated harm would increase. This is based on the notion that prohibition reduces drug use, which is inaccurate as prohibition has failed to prevent rises in drug use, merely increasing existing drug related harm (Rolles, 2007). Legalisation provides an opportunity to reduce the harm amplified by prohibition, while removing the illegal status of drugs may reduce the attractiveness of such substances (Stevenson, 1994 cited in Bean, 2010) so drug use may in fact decline. Moreover, as Rolles (2007) suggests under legalisation drug use would rise and fall in different areas and among different individuals. Most importantly the associated harm would be reduced, drugs would be purer, treatment more widely available and users could be educated on how to use drugs safely. Although prohibitionists argue that increased availability of drugs would lead to increased use, the use of drugs has risen dramatically under prohibition (Rolles, 2007). Legalisation provides a chance to reduce drug related harm which should be prioritised over the unachievable aim of eliminating the use of drugs completely.

The prohibition of drugs not only creates substantial harm to drugs users, but also to wider society. The biggest harm that prohibition has caused to society is through the creation of violent illicit drug markets, creating significant amounts of crime such as prostitution, property crime, drug dealing, and organised crime, all of which cost the Criminal Justice System (CJS) time, money and resources (Kushlick, 2004, cited in Shiner, 2006), which could be used combating other crimes. The creation of illegal markets not only places strain on the CJS, but creates a market where profit is easily achieved, inviting criminal activity. Moreover, the more effective the Police are at tackling drug trafficking and dealing, merely means criminals make more profit, having the counter-productive effect of making the market more attractive (Rolles, 2007). The prohibition of drugs therefore creates crime, and wastes CJS resources, which impact the whole of society, with legalisation providing an attractive alternative.

Legalisation would remove drug markets from criminals who are not concerned for the welfare of drug users, or the wider drug related harm they create (Rolles, 2007). Placing the market under strict government control and regulation could reduce many of the drug related harm intensified under prohibition. Not only would money be saved through policing, court procedures and imprisoning those criminalised for drug related offences, legalisation would provide an opportunity for a business estimated to make '£300 billion a year' (Rolles, 2007: 68) globally, to be redirected from the criminal underground and into the public purse through taxation. This money could then be spent on treatment and education initiatives (Chand, 2007; Ragner, 2003) potentially reducing the harm associated with drug use. As legalisation would remove the criminal aspect of drugs, the harms inflicted on individual users and the rest of society would be reduced. Additionally, legalisation would prove much more cost effective than prohibition, and the money gained could be used to further reduce the harm associated with drug use through education and treatment initiatives.

The 'Government estimates over one half of robberies, [and] up to two quarters of burglaries... [are] drug related' (Newburn, 2007: 479) as enslavement theory suggests that drug users commit crime to fund their habit as they are enslaved to their drug use (South, 1999). Prohibitionists argue that legalisation would not reduce crime rates as users would still have to commit crimes to purchase drugs, and Bean (2010) and Ruggiero (1999) even suggest that if drugs were prescribed free many users would still commit crime to live. However, 'illegal drugs are expensive, [while] legal drugs are not' (Rolles, 2007: 64), so only a small minority would continue committing crime to fund their drug use. With drug use decriminalised, drug users could be reintegrated into society and encouraged to find housing and employment, providing legitimate means for purchasing drugs. Legalisation would reduce drug related crime, significantly reducing the harm that drugs inflict on society under prohibition.

The prohibition of drugs also has wider effects on the producer countries, such as Afghanistan and Columbia, whose income depends on the illegal drug market. However, with the majority of the profits made from drugs going to criminal gangs, the producer countries only receive a minority of the money, and remain economically and politically unstable (Rolles, 2007), dictated by violence. Legalisation would provide those producer countries with an increased and more stable form of income (South, 1999), and would remove the corruption and fear that dominates these countries under prohibition. With drugs prohibited great harm is caused to producer countries, as the criminal gangs that surround the country with violence currently benefit from the profits of illegal drugs, while legalisation would allow these countries to become more stable.

As has been discussed in this essay the prohibition of drugs causes more harm than it currently prevents, thus legalisation provides a more cost effective (Rolles, 2007), and harm reductive alternative. The legalisation of drugs would allow the government to regain greater control over the supply, consumption and use of currently illicit drugs. Therefore, emplacing restrictions upon age, and location of consumption, such as currently emplaced upon alcohol and tobacco (Rolles, 2007), allowing educative and treatment initiatives to be widely established. The regulation of tobacco and increased education regarding its harm are examples of how greater regulation and control over a substance can significantly reduce its use (Rolles, 2007), highlighting that if individuals are given sufficient information about substances many will choose not to use them, even when they are not prohibited.

Prohibitionists argue that in a consumer driven society, legalisation is worrying as all could abuse drugs freely (Ruggiero, 1999), with some unable to make those decisions for themselves, such as the mentally ill or children. As legalisation would provide tight government control and regulation of such substances, drugs would not be freely available to all. With focus turned to education for non-users, especially youths, and treatment for current users, demand for such substances would be tackled, which is the only way drug use will decline (Shiner, 2006). Furthermore, as drugs are already available to those young people that wish to try them, regulation will not stop youths experimenting with such substances any more than prohibition currently does. Legalisation simply allows the opportunity for such use to be controlled, and allow certain drug related harm existent under prohibition, such as criminalisation and drug impurities, to be removed. It is inaccurate to assume that legalisation would result in increased use as, drugs would be highly controlled and regulated, and would most importantly provide an opportunity for drug related harm to be reduced.

However, the effects that legalisation would have on society if emplaced are hard to determine as, those calling for legalisation merely make 'optimistic assumptions' (Bean, 2010: 16) regarding the effects they desire to occur. Moreover, as Bean (2010) states the impact of legalisation would not be immediate as some individuals would continue to misuse drugs, and commit crime yet, the overall prevalence of drugs will eventually decline, and drug related harm would reduce. As current policy is failing to achieve its aims and has created significantly more harm than it has reduced (Ruggiero, 1999), a change in policy is required before further harm is inflicted on drug users and wider society.

In Conclusion, as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is failing, merely exacerbating harm caused by drug use (Rolles, 2007), it is illegitimate and needs to be replaced. As John Stuart Mills suggests, the government cannot restrict an individual's choices when they are harming themselves (Shiner, 2006). Individuals need to be trusted to make their own life choices, with the government's role to guide individuals to make the correct choice, and assist them if they do not. Prohibition currently treats a 'health issue' (Daily Mail, 2002 cited in Shiner, 2006) with criminalisation, simply isolating and labelling individuals, creating a reluctance to engage in treatment and increasing existing harm (Buchanan and Young, 2000). The illegal status of drugs increases harm through impurities, encouraging 'high risk behaviours' (Rolles, 2007), creating an illicit market, generating crime, and destabilising producer countries (Rolles, 2007). Prohibition has exacerbated the number of users and drug related harm (Rolles, 2007), so has proven ineffective and needs replacing. Legalisation presents an encouraging alternative to prohibition, enabling the government to regulate and control the drug market, removing the illegality of drugs, and the harm inflicted onto drug users and society (Rolles, 2007). Additionally allowing users to engage in treatment and educate non-user, would greatly reduce the harm currently caused by prohibition.