by Peter Hurst
Tuesday, 10
August 2021

William Hague is wrong: decriminalising drugs isn’t the ‘only’ way

There are problems with Portugal's drug approach too
by Peter Hurst
There is a paucity of evidence on whether decriminalisation in and of itself improves the outcomes for drug users

In The Times today, former Conservative Party leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague proffers the opinion that “decriminalising drugs is the only way forward” and that we should “follow Portugal in treating addiction primarily as a health problem.” In the article, Hague praises the country’s approach to drugs — decriminalising use as far back as 2001 — and repeats a number of well-worn mantras relating to how the Portuguese approach could be applied in the UK also. There are a number of problems with this argument, however. 

Firstly, Hague fails to note any downsides in the Portuguese approach. For instance, since Portugal decriminalised drug use back 20 years ago, there has been a huge increase in hospitalisations related to cannabis-related psychotic disorders. This represents not only a sharp rise in the burden placed on public services but also a great deal of human suffering. Any argument that we adopt a Portuguese-style approach to drugs should contend with this fact, but Hague ignores it completely. 

Though the former Tory leader is right to mention the benefits of Portugal’s increased investment in treatment services, he devotes many more words of his piece to decriminalisation:

Portugal has not legalised drugs and still punishes drug-trafficking. But after decriminalisation, all major indicators in a variety of studies have improved, including an 18 per cent fall in the total costs to society after 11 years. By 2010, the number of drug offenders sent to criminal courts had halved. Less law enforcement work will have helped to pay for better treatments. Might this not be worth a try?
- William Hague, The Times

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of evidence on whether decriminalisation in and of itself improves the outcomes for drug users and society at large. Even the liberal New York Times recognises that. And the danger is that the decriminalisation debate becomes a distraction from more tangible benefits. Politicians should be focusing on expanding substance-use disorder treatment, but have shown no interest in doing so. More galling is that Hague is happy to reference Dame Professor Carol Black’s recent independent review into this country’s drug approach, but neglects to mention that she also highlighted that service provision for people with substance-misuse disorders has shrunk considerably during the last eight years, a period in which his party has been in government. 

In truth, the decriminalisation of drugs would not be sufficient to sever the link between drugs and the criminal justice system — there would still be drug traffickers and black markets to contend with either way. As Fordham University professor John Pfaff has pointed out: “Portugal’s decriminalization law is actually the same sort of law that the United States had during Prohibition in the 1920s. Drinking alcohol was never illegal during Prohibition; only its manufacture, transport and sale were. Portugal only decriminalized for drugs what Prohibition never made illegal for alcohol, and what was illegal for alcohol under Prohibition remains illegal in Portugal for drugs.”

The key problem with Hague’s piece is that it presents only a partial picture of what has happened in Portugal. He says that we should treat the UK’s drug scourge as a health, not a crime, problem — yet we already treat substance misuse disorders as a health-related problem in this country. It’s far easier for a politician to recommend liberalisation than to accept that the most humane response is to increase spending on public services.

Peter Hurst is a psychiatric nurse and political blogger based in Liverpool. He tweets @Post_Liberal

Join the discussion

  • The big difference is that guns are used against other people, whereas drugs primarily hurt the user

  • Another big deal is that if young people regularly take drugs BEFORE their brains mature (alcohol included) then their brains will NOT MATURE properly. Their frontal lobes will be undersized and their ability to think and act coherently will be compromised – and they will lose the game of life and be driven to self medicate -esp if drugs get cheaper and more available. What is a fun dabble for the middleclass is poison for the strugglers………….

  • Total legalization is like giving guns to children, it is a bad idea.

    Read on China and Opium during the Opium Wars era. The opium was legal, taxed, weights and measures meant it was all above board, it was your choice, take it or leave it….. It was really bad.

    I have heard lots of young people are getting mentally messed up by legal marijuana – but it is not written about much as it goes against the popular Liberal thinking. Much of the real violence in the world is done by people high on marijuana – in Central and South America and the Caribbean, and elsewhere, Africa with the child soldiers chopping off hands – these guys are mostly stoned wile ultra violent.

    Just because marijuana is not known to increase violence in middle class stoners means nothing (It has documented harm mentally to middle class youngsters though). Habitual gang members very often do their worst wile high – there seems to be a point of habituation where it causes horrible tendencies – it sure messes up the brain if used too much. I have known a lot of total pot heads, and there is not much left inside, the pot eats the personality away over time.

    My position, from seeing a great deal of the world, is drugs are bad. They may be OK as short term youthful rebellion and experimenting, but when drug use continues into adulthood it is almost always is a problem, same as very young using them, or anyone using drugs habitually. Drugs are bad for the greater extent – and should not be readily available to all.

    “Total legalisation is the only way to remove the harms caused by prohibition.” sorry to be harsh, but this is an UTTERLY ignorant meme repeated by people who cannot think for themselves. For social good Prohibition worked very well in most of American society – Alcohol abuse was a big social problem which prohibition fixed in a great many areas – the problem was that people have always had alcohol in society, it is very much a human trait, beer making was one of the very first technologies discovered, 5000 years ago at least, people wanted to have drinks, so brought it back. – Meth, Fentanyl, Marijuana, Coke, crack, Ecstasy, heroin, this is just not the same at all.

    You say make vice legal as it is hard to control – and that is giving in to vice.

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