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Taking drugs should be legal but discouraged in the same way as smoking

The war on drugs hasn’t worked. Cigarette smoking, on the other hand, has declined steadily since the Second World War

By on Monday, 23 January 2012

Smoking is widely seen as unhealthy and unglamorous (Photo: PA)

Smoking is widely seen as unhealthy and unglamorous (Photo: PA)

Yesterday’s Observer reports that Richard Branson will soon give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s enquiry into drugs policy. This is the first enquiry into the matter for some time, and the Observer’s report is hedged with caution. It seems that the fact that Sir Richard has been called to give evidence (he is a well-known proponent of reform) has caused concern among “health experts” – though at no point does it say who these experts are.

Branson himself has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph, which you can read here. It is rather wordy and it does not say much that is concrete beyond the, to me at least, self-evident, truth that the war on drugs has failed, and that we need to look at other ways of combating drugs – but he does not spell out what these other ways might be.

These other ways are in fact twofold – decriminalisation of all drugs, and legalisation of all drugs, which is not the same thing. It is worth noting that no single serving politician seems to be openly in favour of reform. The people who support the Branson position are all former presidents of this or that. The reason is simple – to support what is perceived as a soft line on drugs would be to court electoral suicide. And yet, all our serving politicians must know that our current drugs policy is not working. Look around you – if this is success, what on earth would failure look like?

Why are people so afraid? Decriminalisation seems to be working in Portugal. As for legalisation, some drugs are perfectly legal already. I don’t just mean tea, coffee and tobacco, but drugs such as khat, otherwise called miraa. Khat can be freely bought in New York and London, and because it has to be fresh, it is flown into London every night by flights out of Nairobi, or so I am told. Khat is traded in the same way that all other agricultural products are. But if it were to be banned and made illegal, you can be sure that not only would it still be sold, but that it would be sold at a highly inflated price, and its sale and production would be controlled by criminal gangs.

But are there moral questions here? There most certainly are. Is it wrong to take khat? Yes it is. It can hardly be squared with the virtue of prudence, as taking any mood altering substance might well damage your health and make you temporarily less responsible. I would not take khat, except possibly just once to gauge its effects. But the real question is this – given that khat (or cocaine, or heroin) is bad for you, is the resolution not to take it better made at a personal level, or should it be made at the level of government? In other words, who decides – the high court of parliament, or the high court of conscience? Which is the most effective forum for legislation?

Again, look at cigarette smoking in the UK. The decline in smoking has been remarkably steep over the decades since the Second World War, though it has recently levelled off somewhat. This has come about largely through education and persuasion, along with increase in prices, but not through coercion as such: while smoking has been restricted in public places, it has not been made illegal. If we were to treat the consumption of all drugs in the same way, legal but discouraged, and above all portrayed as unhealthy and unglamorous, the consumption of such drugs would perhaps markedly decline too. And if such drugs were legal, apart from raising much needed revenue through tax, the savings made from policing the drugs trade could be channelled into education and persuasion.

In the end we have to face the fact that coercion does not work. Nor is coercion morally desirable. We want people not to take drugs as a moral choice, not because we have frightened them into not taking drugs or forcibly removed their drugs from them – which is of course an impossibility, as a visit to any prison will tell you.

Finally, some Catholics might make the point that if I favour the legalisation of drugs, then surely this argument could also apply to the question of abortion. My position on abortion is that of the Magisterium: nothing could possibly justify the taking of innocent life, and all life has the absolute right to legal protection from its first moments. Allowing adults to harm themselves through drug taking is not the same as allowing adults to harm, indeed kill, unborn life, which is never acceptable. True, taking drugs is a moral evil; but that moral evil, which I deplore, is not best contained through the criminal justice system.

  • Zac

    Thank you Father for a brilliant article, I completely agree with everything you say. It’s a shame that none of our politicians have the courage to change things.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks, Zac!

  • Jack

    Excellent article Father, I’ve never heard the case for decriminalisation argued in such a persuasive manner. 

  • Guest

    “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin …”

  • Anonymous

    Well argued, congratulations. 

  • DJ

    A Catholic making sense? Next thing you’ll be going the whole hog and declaring that you’re now a scientific humanist who bases morals on human rights, the golden rule, and honest debate and discussion. Now that’d be a miracle.

  • Rjashton

    Any relaxation of the present law would undoubtedly result in greater use, with all the problems which go with that. Young people need no encouragement to dabble in these dangerous substances.
    If you think that reducing the thrill effect by removing illegality would help – what about alcohol?
    You argue against coercion. Does that view apply also to drink driving? We use coercion when we believe that a given behaviour is seriously harmful. There is a strong case for saying that the use of cannabis and other currently illegal drugs comes into this category.

  • Anonymous

    ‘Any relaxation of the present law would undoubtedly result in greater use’
    thats quite an assertion is it not? Just because something SOUNDS plausable does not mean you can assert it with authority and no facts included to back it up!

    If legalisation was such a problem then why does Holland have the lowest rate of cannabis usage in Europe? At only 5.4% compared to 6.8% which the the European average.

    Point + FACTS = credible argument
    That’s how it works.

  • Anonymous

    bit of a libertarian streak here Father! For once we agree:)

  • Anonymous

    What are “all the problems which go with that”? Certainly drug use can harm people’s own health but is that reason to send them to prison or give them criminal records? Would that be acceptable for tobacco or for unhealthy eating or not exercising enough? I’d rather have the taxes cover any costs to the NHS, educate about the harms and leave the choice to individuals.

    I suspect many of the problems you’re thinking of are not inevitable consequences of drug use but of drug prohibition. It’s the hugely inflated price of heroin and crack cocaine that drives acquisitive crime and prostitution (also see ‘Heroin on the NHS’ – ). Unknown doses and cutting agents make drug use far more dangerous. And of course the profits and violence associated with gangs and cartels (e.g. the scores of thousands dead in Latin America) are the result of drug policy, not drugs.

    As for drink driving, there is a big difference between allowing informed people to risk their own health if they choose and allowing intoxicated people to control several tonnes of metal going at high-speed down roads full of other people’s cars, houses and children.

    Does anyone think the US was better off when alcohol was illegal (though at least they didn’t criminalise users), with the trade controlled by violent gangsters and corrupt officials, high-strength drinks more popular so as to make smuggling easier, and deadly drinks mixed in bathtubs?

  • Oconnord

    I will add my respect here. I have never read an article on this subject which appeals so much to reality and common-sense. 

    It is a shame though how the author had to write the last paragraph. Understandable but shameful on the quality of possible comments. 

  • GFFM

    Making dangerous drugs which are often abused illegal is not coercion by any standard. This view of the law is reductive to say the least. The law’s meaning is not merely literal; the law also serves a highly symbolic and therefore meaningful function in society. It carries moral authority and it represents the will, and principles of a people within a democratic society who have decided over time what they will tolerate and what they won’t. Dismissing a hard fought for consensus of the citizenry over time shows a profound disregard for the precedents developed by those who came before us. Making the abuse of drugs legal sends a very real and very damaging message to the culture at large–one of capitulation and fatalism to say the least. Hence I think Fr. Lucie Smith needs to rethink his position and consider Thomas More’s apothegm in Book 1 of his Utopia: “What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” Upending the law and legalizing what is clearly harmful and damaging to the human person does not square with our basic mission as Christians.

  • AMSwan

    Fr Lucie-Smith,

    You may be right, but if drugs are to be decriminalised we need a moral argument that clearly demonstrates that intoxication of any kind is bad. This would naturally have to cover alcohol as much as any other drugs.

    I fear the problem is that the government, schools and universities have failed to make such an argument, and would no doubt cite notions of individual freedom as supporting a right to supposedly harmless forms of intoxication. The fact intoxication itself can never support genuine freindship is, in my opinion, one argument that could be made. Any substance, be it alcohol, cocaine or nicotine that alters a person’s character necessarily alters their relationships with other people. When their character or personality are obscured through intoxication their relationships with other people must also be obscured. I think this argument is a fairly long shot, even if it does seem (to me at least) to be a coherent one.   

  • Annie

    The people I know who use/used drugs, used because they wanted to, the fact that they were illegal made not a bit of difference. If anyone, any age, wants to ‘experiment’, they can, because you can get drugs anywhere.

    What about medicinal cannabis use by MS sufferers? Cannabis relieves MS symptoms, yet any sufferer who rolls a joint or has a hash brownie risks becoming a criminal.

    Alcohol is the drug of choice for many, and yet the Government chooses to regulate it. If drug use was ‘liberalised’, I’m really not convinced we would be any more a nation of drug takers than we are now. But I’m sure we’d still be drinkers.

  • Anonymous

    One problem with this view is that it’s clearly a tyranny of the majority. If the legal status of different kinds of drug use were systematically based on harms (it isn’t!) that would be better but at the moment tobacco and alcohol are legal partly because they’re used by so many people, while other drugs – many less harmful than smoking or drinking – can be prohibited because discriminating against smaller groups of people is okay come election time.

    As for the More quote, there may indeed not be a perfect solution to this problem. It seems that people have always used drugs and always will. But I hope you realise that drug prohibition also brings harms – inc. making drugs more dangerous and driving gang violence – and that legalisation would therefore have benefits. Far from capitulating, we could declare victory by taking the drugs trade out of the hands of gangs and cartels. Debates about decriminalisation and legalisation should therefore cover both costs and benefits – not just “sending out messages” (which is of very dubious efficacy) – to make sure we are making “as little bad” as we can.

  • Anonymous

    Where do you draw the line at what “alters a person’s character”? The largely arbitrary word ‘drug’? What about caffeine? Gambling? Sugar? Lack of sleep? Exercise? Love? Education?

  • RankineCycle

     “When their character or personality are obscured through intoxication their relationships with other people must also be obscured”
    So what? Is it horrible when the introvert who consumes alcohol in order to better tolerate and enjoy occasions of socialization is able to gain friends and respect instead of being “that weirdo who never talks to anyone”? Is it so horrible when someone uses a drug like cannabis to amplify and better understand what is going on in their own minds, or using something like LSD to expand their perspective on the world, possibly beyond the prevailing concept that everything has a binary conclusion?

    Everyone is different, there’s no such thing as black-and-white and no one should be drawing binary conclusions to complex issues.

  • tnewman

    There are a couple of problems with this piece, and it isn’t the place of a priest to be commenting on these issues:
    1) The reason smoking declined was because people were previously not only ignorant that it was harmful, but that it infact had health benefits.  This obvious falsity was dispelled and people smoke less simply because people know it is harmful not because it is legal and safe.  Even still there are still far too many smokers. 
    2) Smoking rates may have declined but there are still millions more smokers in this country than there are drug users and i can tell you from personal experience that if I had to choose between a cigarette and cocaine then the second option is far more enticing.  By decriminalizing/ legalizing the rates of drug users would become comparable to smokers. 

  • Sszorin

    “…there’s no such thing as black-and-white and no one should be drawing binary conclusions to complex issues.” ..I always knew that the nazi social experiment could not be dismissed out of hand. The Jews in the concentration camps were neither all innocent or all guilty. A lot of them were in the right place.

  • Sszorin

    When people join ‘Jehovah’s witnesses’ their characters and personalities and relationships with other people are altered.

  • Sszorin

    I also think that decriminalizing of making ‘snuff videos’ would not lead to the mass production of them.

  • Sszorin

    “…Certainly drug use can harm people’s own health but is that reason to send them to prison or give them criminal records? ” – Giving drug addicts criminal records and sending them to prison is clearly not the way to go . I think that there is a better way of persuasion and of caring for them. There should be a re-education working camp for them. Breaking stones with a hammer in a stone quarry [the women would get lighter hammers], working outside in fresh air and in sunshine and with plenty of food for about let’s say, 6 months per minor conviction, would do them a lot of  good. Unlike in ‘the re-education camps’ in China, in our democratic camps there would be no beatings, torture and summary executions and the civic and personal rights, aside the right to leave the camp, would be granted – for instance the right for leisure, entertainment and personal contacts. I am sure this solution for the repeat drug offences would be approved by the parliament, the government and by the society at large, especially the mass media as we heard not a peep from them about the chinese concentration camps. 

  • Sszorin

    A human right is anything that I like, good or bad.

  • Anonymous

    lol just had to wikipedia that, are you being sarcastic or serious? can’t tell

  • Anonymous

    lol just had to wikipedia that, are you being sarcastic or serious? can’t tell

  • Anonymous

    GCSE history taught me enough about that to say NO! – certainly not. Prohibition, however well intended was not a success!

  • GFFM

    The same is true for any immoral activity. So this really isn’t an argument. It’s a fact of life that people will do illegal and immoral things–however, we don’t have to capitulate to their choices by affirming through the law.

  • GFFM

    You don’t need such an argument. There is a hierarchy of morality. Abusing one’s body, which the Church views as a ‘temple’ is wrong period. There are gradations of abuse. Alcohol abuse and drug abuse are profound examples of this; however, alcohol differs from illegal drugs because the use of alcohol is sometimes salutary, i.e. red wine, a drink a day. Heroin use is never salutary; neither is the use of meth. To ensconce in the law the legalization of such inherent poisons is a kind of fatalism. AGain, as a moral theologian Fr. Lucie needs to reconsider; he is headed right toward a crass utilitarian argument which is very counter to Catholic moral tradition.

  • Anonymous

    Your defence of alcohol really doesn’t work. There’s no good reason why non-alcoholic wine and beer wouldn’t suffice if the psychoactive effects weren’t the aim. We should really give all alcohol users (or just those who drink more than 2 units in one day?) criminal records or prison time, for the greater moral good. Shouldn’t we?

    Heroin is in fact an important, pain-relieving, prescription medicine in the UK. Amphetamine is prescribed to USAF pilots to improve their performance, and to others for treating ADHD or narcolepsy. Coca tea (possibly beneficial, if anything) and opium poppy tea are very different to cocaine and heroin, yet still illegal. Those are just some extra complications.

    And is it just drug use that counts as abusing one’s body? Do all illicit drug users – even the very many occasional or one-time users – do more harm to themselves (if any) than those who overeat or don’t exercise enough, or who risk serious injury through skiing or horse riding? Would it be fatalistic to reject using the criminal justice system to enforce consumption of fruit and veg?

  • Anonymous

    Some simple facts:

    * A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

    * The massive majority of adults who use drugs do so recreationally – getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

    * A small minority of adults (5%) will always experience drug use as problematic. – approx. 3% are dependent on alcohol, and 1.5% dependent on other drugs.

    * Just as it was impossible to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is equally impossible to prevent any of the aforementioned drugs from being produced, distributed and widely used by those who desire to do so.

    * Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the drugs it prohibits.

    * Due to Prohibition (historically proven to be an utter failure at every level), the availability of most of these mood-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

    * Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement – even whole governments, while inducing an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

    * The involvement of the CIA in running Heroin from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan and Cocaine from Central America has been well documented by the 1989 Kerry Committee report, academic researchers Alfred McCoy and Peter Dale Scott, and the late journalist Gary Webb.

    * It’s not even possible to keep drugs out of prisons, but prohibitionists wish to waste hundreds of billions of our money in an utterly futile attempt to keep them off our streets.

    * The United States jails a larger percentage of it’s own citizens than any other country in the world, including those run by the worst totalitarian regimes, yet it has far higher use/addiction rates than most other countries.

    * Prohibition is the “Goose that laid the golden egg” and the lifeblood of terrorists as well as drug cartels. Both the Taliban and the terrorists of al Qaeda derive their main income from the prohibition-inflated value of the opium poppy. An estimated 44 % of the heroin produced in Afghanistan, with an estimated annual destination value of US $ 27 Billion, transits through Pakistan. Prohibition has essentially destroyed Pakistan’s legal economy and social fabric. – We may be about to witness the planet’s first civil war in a nation with nuclear capabilities. – Kindly Google: ‘A GLOBAL OVERVIEW OF NARCOTICS-FUNDED TERRORIST GROUPS’ Only those opposed, or willing to ignore these facts, want things the way they are.

    * The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it. – H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) American editor, essayist and philologist.

  • Anonymous

    According to the Australian National Drug Research Institute (2003): “Tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs are prematurely killing around seven million people worldwide each year, and robbing tens of millions more of a healthy life. The research into the global burden of disease attributable to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs found that in 2000, tobacco use was responsible for 4.9 million deaths worldwide, equating to 71 percent of all drug-related deaths. Around 1.8 million deaths were attributable to the use of alcohol (26 percent of all drug-related deaths), and illicit drugs (heroin, cocaine and amphetamines) caused approximately 223,000 deaths (3 percent of all drug-related deaths).”

    According to DrugRehabs.Org, national mortality figures for 2009 were:  tobacco  435,000;  poor diet and physical inactivity  365,000;  alcohol  85,000; microbial agents  75,000;  toxic agents  55,000; motor vehicle crashes  26,347; adverse reactions to prescription drugs 32,000;  suicide  30,622;  incidents involving firearms  29,000;  homicide  20,308;  sexual behaviors  20,000;  all illicit drug use, direct and indirect  17,000; and marijuana 0.

    Researchers led by Professor David Nutt, a former chief drugs adviser to the British government, asked drug-harm experts to rank 20 drugs (legal and illegal) on 16 measures of harm to the user and to wider society, such as damage to health, drug dependency, economic costs and crime. Alcohol scored 72 out of a possible 100, far more damaging than heroin (55) or crack cocaine (54). It is the most harmful to others by a wide margin, and is ranked fourth behind heroin, crack, and methamphetamine (crystal meth) for harm to the individual.

    The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that in the U.S. alone, an estimated 79,000 lives are lost annually due to “excessive” drinking. The study estimates that the overall cost of excessive drinking by Americans is $223.5 billion each year.

    Health-related costs per user are eight times higher for those who drink alcohol when compared to those who use marijuana, and are more than 40 times higher for tobacco smokers, according to a 2009 review published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal.
    It states, “In terms of [health-related] costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.”

    Having three or more alcoholic drinks a day increased lung cancer risk by 30 percent.
    “Heavy drinking has multiple harmful effects, including cardiovascular complications and increased risk for lung cancer,” 
    - lead researcher Stanton Siu, MD, of Kaiser Permanente

    Apart from the fact that legal drugs kill far more people than all the illegal drugs combined, debating whether a particular drug is harmless or not is missing the whole point. Are drugs like Heroin, Meth or Alcohol dangerous? It simply doesn’t matter, because if we prohibit them then we sure as hell know that it makes a bad situation far worse. If someone wants to attempt to enhance or destroy their lives with particular medicines or poisons, that should be their business, not anybody else’s. Their lives aren’t ours to direct. And anyway, who wants to give criminals, terrorists and corrupt law enforcement agents a huge un-taxed, endless revenue stream?

    A great many of us are slowly but surely wising up to the fact that the best avenue towards realistically dealing with drug use and addiction is through proper regulation which is what we already do with alcohol & tobacco, clearly two of our most dangerous mood altering substances. But for those of you whose ignorant and irrational minds traverse a fantasy plane of existence, you will no doubt remain sorely upset with any type of solution that does not seem to lead to your absurd and unattainable utopia of a drug free society.

  • Anonymous

    When we regulate something we do NOT automatically condone it’s use; the regulations concerning alcohol and tobacco are there to protect us from the vast increase in criminality that would otherwise exist if these substances were prohibited.

    A regulated and licensed distribution network for all mind altering substances would put responsible adult supervision in between children and premature access to drug distribution outlets (illegal street dealers). Regulated and licensed distribution would reflect and respect society’s values, thus preventing children obtaining easy access to these dangerous substances. What we need is legalized regulation. What we have now, due to prohibition, is a non-regulated black market to which everybody has access and where all the profits go to organized crime and terrorists.

  • Anonymous

    Prohibition actually increases usage rates and even availability, which is quite the opposite of what you claim.

    Here are the main paragraphs from the address of His Eminence, Cardinal Dougherty, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, to the Catholic societies of the Archdiocese on New Year’s Day 1931: 

    “Having heard the report on behalf of the members of the Total Abstinence Society, it occurs to me to say that when the law prohibiting alcoholic drink was passed, many thought that there would be no further need for our temperance or total-abstinence societies. Hence the practice of giving a pledge against intoxicating liquors to boys and girls at Confirmation was discontinued. There seemed to be no need of it.”

    “But, unfortunately. Prohibition has not performed the miracles that were expected. According to experts, such as judges, public officials, social service workers, and others, there is as much, perhaps even more, drunkenness and intemperance today than before the passage of the Volstead Act.”

    “When in the past did we see young men and women of respectable families carrying a flask of liquor when going to social events? When did we see young girls, not yet of age, drinking in public, perhaps to excess, cocktails and the strongest kind of intoxicating liquors, and perhaps being overcome by them? That, today, is not an uncommon sight.”

  • Anonymous

    Mushrooms are used in a salutary manner, in some religions.  So is Marijuana.  Alcohol is more harmful than either!

  • Anonymous

    Sszorin, judging by what you’ve been posting here, you appear to be making a rather good case for all comments to be screened for mental incompetence­.

    Because Drug cartels will always have an endless supply of ready cash for wages, bribery and equipment, no amount of tax money, police powers, weaponry, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safe again. Only an end to prohibition can do that! How much longer are you willing to foolishly risk your own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution.

    Sane policy based on solid evidence as opposed to delusional neurotic fantasy, is key in all this.

    If you’re going to continue with your crusade for a drug-free Utopia, then at least take a stand on either ALL drugs (incl. alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or no drugs. There is no ” in-between” that doesn’t bring forth a “double standard.” And double standards are one of the many reasons why you’re losing this debate!

  • Dave

    Your arguments are all either suppositions or spurious analogies.

    You say ‘undoubtedly’, implying you haven’t looked at any evidence of this statement. In fact, cannabis use dropped (according to U&K government figures) when the drug was downgraded to class C, and then rose again when it was made class B. Just because something sounds lgical to you, it doesn’t mkake it true, since human beings are at best unpredictable and counter-intuitive.

    And no, this doesn’t apply to drink-driving – but it does apply to drug-driving. You must admit that you have made a leap here – no-one said driving on cannabis should be allowed, they just said that the personal choice to take it should be.

    “We use coercion when we believe that a given behaviour is seriously harmful” – drink-driving is harmful to innocent people, smoking cannabis is only harmful to the body of the user, provided they don’t expose others to second-hand smoke – which is exactly the sort of responsibility we coujld teach if it weren’t illegal.

  • Davethegoldfish

     PS – also, please look at scientific evidence when you talk about drugs being ‘harmful’. If we go by actual bodily damage and number of deaths and hospitalisations, the most dangerous druigs are heroin, cocaine, alcohol and tobacco, and among the least dangerous are cannabis, ecstacy and LSD. This might not square with what you’ve heard, but again, we must look at scietific data if we wish to know anything, not just guess by analogy.

  • Neill Franklin

    Fr Lucie-Smith, if you are still monitoring comments I would love to speak with you. I can be reached through our website,

    Peace and Blessings
    Neill Franklin

  • Bob_By