The Times has boldly gone where few newspapers – and very, very few politicians – have ever dared to go before by declaring itself in favour of legalising drugs in Britain.
In a leading article, “Breaking Good”, the paper has supported a call on the government by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) to decriminalise both the possession and use of all illegal drugs.
Accepting that it “is radical advice”, the Times thought it “sound” and urged ministers to “give it serious consideration”.
Newspapers have usually shied away from adopting such a stance. In 1997, the Independent on Sunday, then edited by Rosie Boycott, came out in favour of decriminalising cannabis. The following year, thousands gathered in London’s Hyde Park in support of her campaign to change the law.
But 10 years later, long after Boycott had departed, the paper changed its mind. It argued that new strains of cannabis, notably skunk, were dangerous, causing disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia.
Although the Observer and the Guardian have raised questions about potential changes of laws within countries that produce drugs neither have advocated decriminalisation in Britain.
The Observer noted in 2011 that the war on drugs had failed and argued that“when policies fail it is incumbent on our leaders to look for new ones.”
The Times has adopted the logic of that position. Even so, its initiative, especially going beyond cannabis to embrace all illegal drugs, is something of a first.
Its front page news story reported on the “landmark intervention” by the RSPH and the Faculty of Public Health as “the first leading medical organisations to come out in favour of radical drugs reform.”
Both bodies believe that addiction to all drugs – ranging from heroin and cocaine to cannabis and so-called legal highs – should be regarded as a health problem rather than a crime.
The Times’s editorial, while agreeing that decriminalisation would put Britain in the company of a small group of countries that have made such a policy switch, supported that change of direction.
It is not “to be taken lightly”, it said, “yet the logic behind it and evidence from elsewhere are persuasive”. It added:
“The government should be encouraged to think of decriminalisation not as an end in itself but as a first step towards legalising and regulating drugs as it already regulates alcohol and tobacco.”
It pointed to the situation in Portugal, where drug decriminalisation has existed for 15 years. Possession there “does not earn the user a criminal record” and “the country’s drug-related death rate was three per million citizens compared with 10 per million in the Netherlands and 44.6 in Britain.”
The Times said: “Recreational drug use [in Portugal] has not soared, as critics of decriminalisation had feared. HIV infection rates have fallen and the use of so-called legal highs is, according to a study last year, lower than in any other European country.”
It contended: “It may be politic not to rush discussion of full legalisation but that should still be the ultimate goal. In the long term it is not tenable to decriminalise possession of a substance while preserving the profit motive of the criminal gangs that supply it.”
And the paper concluded, again like the Observer, that international drug wars have “proved unwinnable”. Instead, it urged the government “to move gradually towards legalised supply chains such as those allowed for cannabis in Uruguay and a minority of US states.”
Source: The Guardian