December 9, 2021 - 2:30pm

We should legalise drugs.

That’s not a surprising position for someone who, like me, comes from the liberal, vaguely Left side of politics. But it’s the one I hold. And I hold it, as do most liberals, because I believe (on the basis, I think, of good evidence) that most of the harms caused by drugs are caused by their prohibition. If you make a drug illegal, you make it impossible to regulate: it is, for example, often easier for under-18s to get hold of cannabis than alcohol, because it is not sold in regulated shops which require ID. There is no quality control or safety management. The argument for legalising drugs is not that drugs are safe: drugs are not safe. The argument for legalising drugs is precisely that they are unsafe, and it is easier to make them safer if you can regulate them.

Which is why it is surprising that, with some already legal drugs, there is a tendency to move in the other direction. New Zealand plans to make it illegal for anyone born after 2008 to buy cigarettes, once those people reach the legal age to do so.

Smoking is an astonishingly dangerous habit. It contributes to something 80,000 deaths a year in this country, according to the NHS: that’s about one death in every seven. It really is amazingly bad for you.

But people are doing it less and less. The minimum age for buying cigarettes has gone up; smoking has been banned indoors, adverts for cigarettes have been banned, and cigarette brands have been forced to ditch their logos. Vaping has become much more common, and while it’s not risk-free, it’s at least an order of magnitude safer than smoking (and risks of it acting as a gateway drug appear to be overstated). Whether through those measures, or education, or simply changing attitudes, smoking has dropped enormously: something like half of UK adults smoked in the mid-1970s; now it’s more like one in six.

This is what the regulation of dangerous drugs looks like. It’s trickier with tobacco than with, say, heroin or MDMA, because a much larger percentage of the population already uses it openly. You couldn’t, for instance, make tobacco prescription-only to addicts, as you could if you were starting more from scratch. But you can use public health measures and regulation to reduce use, and while doing so you can stop under-18s from buying it, and you can maintain rigorous safety standards.

But making it illegal seems to go against all the wisdom we’ve gained from other drugs. New Zealand has done other useful things – they’re making it harder to buy tobacco and restricting its sale from many shops. Those sorts of levers seem more sensible. Prohibition, though, is a blunt tool. If it ever reduces use, it’s not by much; and it increases the harm drugs do, by reducing society’s control over them. Maybe smoking is a special case, or maybe New Zealand has some clever way around all the harms. But I’d be very wary.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.