Europe Sliding into More-Lax Drug Laws

But Foes Warn of Rising Addiction

LONDON, NOV. 17, 2001 ( Pressure is increasing on governments to relax laws on drug use. Several countries recently moved in this direction.

In October, British authorities decided that possession of marijuana will no longer be punished by arrest. Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the drug would be moved from Class B to Class C, putting it in the same category as antidepressants and steroids, the Times of London reported Oct. 24.

Users caught with small quantities of marijuana are unlikely to be prosecuted, while the maximum sentence for dealing will be cut from 14 to five years. Blunkett also indicated that he expected to approve the medicinal use of marijuana and wanted more doctors to prescribe heroin as a way of bringing addicts into the health care system, according to the Times.

Shortly after the U.K. law change, Portugal announced a new law that eliminates jail sentences for possession or use of small amounts of any illegal drug. Instead, drug users will be referred to a panel of experts for assistance, reported the New York Times on Nov. 5.

The panel, made up of a psychologist, a social worker and a legal adviser, will decide what action to take: counseling, treatment, community service, or fines of up to about $130.

Portugal has one of Europe´s highest levels of hard-drug use, said Vitalino Canas, the government´s drug policy chief. The government estimates that the country has 80,000 to 90,000 heroin addicts — about 1% of the population.

Spain and Italy do not jail people caught with drugs meant for personal use. Luxembourg has ended jail sentences for marijuana possession. Laws in France and Belgium make prison a last resort for drug users. The same occurs in Denmark, Germany and Austria.

And in Sydney, the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, announced that Australia´s first legal heroin-injecting room has been a success since its opening in May. Carr said he did not rule out keeping the center open at the end of its trial period, but noted that first a full evaluation was needed, reported the Age newspaper of Melbourne on Oct. 11.

Conservatives in favor

A number of publications have published articles arguing in favor of relaxing drug laws. The Economist printed a special survey on illegal drugs in its July 28 issue. In an editorial, the magazine admitted that removing legal barriers would result in drugs being more accessible and that more people would experiment with them.

Yet, the Economist gave two reasons in favor of drug legalization. The first stems from the ideas of John Stuart Mill, “who urged that the state had no right to intervene to prevent individuals from doing something that harmed them, if no harm was thereby done to the rest of society.”

The second reason is based on the bad effects of current drug laws: principally in the large sums of money that trafficking provides for criminal gangs and corrupt governments. If governments tolerate alcohol and tobacco, they should also permit drugs, argues the editorial.

In Business Week on Sept. 17, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary S. Becker came out in favor of legalizing marijuana and even some hard drugs. He noted the high cost of fighting the war against drugs, and the fact that drug offenders now count for more than 30% of inmates in prisons.

Legalizing drugs will also “eliminate most of the profit and corruption from the drug trade” and increase government revenues through excise taxes, he said.

National Review editor Rich Lowry on Aug. 20 also argued in favor of relaxing laws on drugs. Since 1996 the editorial position of the magazine has favored legalization, mainly because it considers the war against drugs a failure. Lowry considers that there is little sense in jailing people for using marijuana, given its relative harmlessness.


But a number of objections have been raised to permitting easier access to drugs.

The Independent on Oct. 24 noted that marijuana has more than 4,090 active ingredients, many of which have not been fully studied. The British daily also noted that there is mounting evidence marijuana can “provoke severe anxiety and mental illness, impair reaction times and coordination skills and do more damage to the lungs than cigarettes.”

Dr. Claire Gerada, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners´ drugs misuse training program, said: “I think it is a good thing not to imprison and criminalize young people. But I would like the public to understand that cannabis is not without risk. … We have so many deaths from tobacco and alcohol abuse, please let´s not go down the same route with cannabis.”

In the Sunday Times on Oct. 28, Melanie Phillips warned against the danger of following the example of the Netherlands, which suffered a 50% increase in heroin addiction during the 1990s and has the highest rate in Europe of cocaine use among 14- to 16-year-olds.

She also drew attention to a study that shows about 25% of cannabis users go on to hard drugs.

As for the Swiss model — giving heroin addicts syringes, a secure place to inject, and in some cases even heroin itself — the Italian bioethics magazine Medicina e Morale last year gave a negative judgment.

The authors of the article, Giovanni Fantacci and Michael G. Koch, found that the permissive Swiss experiment has led to an increase in drug consumption, particularly among young people. This virtually guarantees a larger drug clientele for many decades.

Drug-related deaths have not decreased with the liberal laws. In fact, in the group that has received free heroin, the number of deaths is higher than that of addicts in other countries who undergo therapy designed to diminish their drug dependence.

The Vatican has also come out against liberalizing drug laws. The Spanish magazine Palabra in its June issue reported on a recent conference given by the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán noted that drug abuse is both a result and a cause of ethical and social disintegration and that the use of illegal drugs is increasing.

But it is a mistake to talk of legalizing drug use, because there is no right to damage oneself or to abdicate one´s own personal dignity, explained the archbishop. John Paul II has spoken out on a number of occasions in opposition to drug legalization, he noted.

The real problem to resolve is to be found in the absence of moral values and interior harmony of the drug user. Archbishop Lozano suggested three courses of action to take: prevention by means of strengthening social and family bonds; an active fight against drug trafficking; treatment for addicts to help them overcome their dependence. Not a quick fix program, but likely the longer-lasting one.

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