A Symposium on the Legalization and Regulation of Drugs

Sponsored by Cost of Conscience, this event brought together a remarkable series of experts in the field and provided those attending with an extraordinary insight into the complexities of the social, legal, moral and medical questions of our time.

With the kind permission of all the participants, we have tried below, in response to your many requests, to give you a flavour of the day. You will appreciate that condensing 30,000 words to a mere 4,000 cannot do full justice to our speakers, nor can we include the fascinating question and answer session. However, in the spirit of serving our readers, we offer the following digest and hope the information and insights will be of help in your discussions, youth work and wider Christian ministry.


Frances Cairncross was the journalist who produced the supplement for The Economist last year entitled ‘High Time’. The magazine’s editorial policy had been, for a long time, pro-legalization on a ‘gut-liberal principles’ basis and sent Frances out to ‘discover the odd fact’ to support the case. She believes that the facts do just that but prefaced her lecture by clearly distancing herself from the business of promoting drug-taking and identified herself as a ‘moderately regular churchgoer’.

The Summary:

The history of drug use and abuse is as old as the history of man. Opium has been cultivated for 8,000 years, coca has been used for at least 2,000 years. Even Victorian society was not unfamiliar with the effect of laudanum, from the aristocratic flight of poetic fancy to the practical soporific employed by child minders. The great moral case of that period was the British forcing of the opium trade on China by open warfare.

Alcoholism was a much more significant problem than drugs and, while people became more tolerant of alcohol, they became less so of drugs. It might so easily have been the other way round.

Early twentieth-century America tightened drug laws to control blacks’ use of cannabis and Chinese use of heroin in the cities. It was anti-immigrant and racist legislation. The United States policy was then exported to other countries, a familiar pattern of American cultural imperialism.

Plane economics

The current illegal drugs trade is estimated at 150 billion dollars. The sources of drugs are relatively few. Afghanistan produces two-thirds of the world’s opium and Burma most of the remainder. Eighty per cent of the world coca comes from Columbia. The producer farmer receives a fraction of the final value of his crop. In the mid-1990s an opium farmer would have received 90 dollars per kilo. This would wholesale at 3,000 dollars locally, import to the United States at 80,000 dollars and street retail for 300,000 dollars. So enormous are the profits that, if a smuggler from Columbia had to lose his plane every delivery it would only add less than one per cent to the street price. Economic interruption of the supply line is, therefore, difficult.

Few countries supply but many countries demand. Largest consumers of heroin are Thailand, China, Pakistan and Iran with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union growing as customers. Fragmenting societies, rapid urbanization and the rootless poor are key factors in the spread of drug use.

Use in rich countries is much more rational and social. Most drug users are occasional and social, employing cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine. The 80–20 Rule broadly applies. Eighty per cent of the people account for twenty per cent of the use. Twenty per cent are hardened regular users/abusers.

Drug-related deaths are vastly lower, proportionately, than alcohol or tobacco related deaths. Drug deaths, moreover, are most likely to be caused by contamination or misjudging the strength of the fix. Legalization and regulation would eliminate most of these problems.

Two conflicting policies are employed in the West. The United States style prohibition competes with the liberal Dutch/Swiss models. The effects of prohibition are perverse and the war on drugs has coincided with a fall in the prices of drugs and the jailing of hugely disproportionate numbers of young black men in America.

In England drug-taking is, as elsewhere, related to crime. A recent study of 1,000 users showed they had committed 75,000 crimes in three months. These, of course, are the heavy users, ‘chaotic’, the heart of the crime statistics.

Mill’s Boon

Alternatives to the United States and British policies are on view in Switzerland and Holland. In Holland a principle of expediency applies (as in the case of abortion and euthanasia). Where the law finds it hard cope the state may still regard something as technically illegal but make it clear that no action will be taken. Marijuana cafés proliferate where soft users can go and separate out from hard drug users. Switzerland has heroin maintenance clinics where addicts with problems can receive their heroin in controlled conditions. As a result crime from this category of user has fallen and some users have got steady jobs. With much care, slowly and deliberately, illegal drugs should be legalized. Currently you can get a shot of caffeine at the coffee bar, alcohol at the pub and Prozac at your doctor. Similar ways of differentiating could be applied to currently illegal drugs.

Why take this route? The first argument is ethical. For the child of the liberal generation the words of John Stuart Mill have authority. ‘The only duty for which power can be rightly exercised by the state over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others; over himself over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’ We allow individuals to follow many dangerous pursuits. The same tolerance could reasonably be applied to drugs.

The second argument is economic. Legalization would mean a dramatic fall in price and greater social acceptability. This would lead, inevitably, to higher and more widespread use and greater levels of addiction. However there would be a reduction in crime and imprisonment and a decline in police corruption. There would also be proper regulation and quality control. It would enable would-be experimenters to do so more safely. It is, in the end, the arguments for safety and regulation that are the most convincing.


Mary Brett is a teacher at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham. For many years she has specialized in issues of health education and the effect of drugs on the society in which her pupils must live and make their way. Her paper concentrated on the most widely used illegal drug, cannabis.

The Summary:

It is a dangerous myth that cannabis is harmless. There are over 15,000 scientific papers on cannabis and none of them attest it as a safe drug. It is taken for euphoria but is more likely to accentuate the mood you are already in. It is an intoxicant responsible for more vehicle accidents than alcohol in the United States, although alcohol use is 10 times higher. The body clears alcohol at the rate of one unit per hour (half a pint of beer) because it is water soluble. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the key ingredient of cannabis, is fat soluble and 50 per cent remains in the body for a week and 10 per cent for a month. It dissolves in the fatty membranes of our cells and stays there. This is particularly alarming for the brain cells and their capacity to transmit. It is no coincidence that concentration, memory, articulation and brain energy are permanently down in even moderate users. There is growing evidence that this may be permanent when used over a longer period. A cannabis personality develops characterized by apathy, inflexibility, alienation and mild paranoia. Academic ability and serious social engagement suffer accordingly.

The chemicals in cannabis, and those produced by burning it, have a higher carcinogenic level than tobacco and cause greater damage to the immune system. There is evidence accumulating that it reduces fertility in men and compromises immunity in all by its effect on the white blood cell count. It also has a detrimental effect on blood pressure and heart rate.

In the light of the above, medical arguments in favour would have to be pretty spectacular.

In fact, purified THC is already available on prescription and is not popular with doctors because of its side-effects. The BMA is currently testing 60 purified cannabinoids as potential medicines and no-one has a problem with that. This is very different from the 400 chemicals in cannabis (rising to 2,000 on burning) when ‘pot’ is smoked. The legalization lobby in America is deliberately cloaking its case in the ‘medical needs’ argument.

Human Lab Rats

The 1998 New York conference on medical marijuana (109 top scientists) concluded, ‘Marijuana or THC do not qualify as safe or effective medication. They have no place in a modern pharmacopeia.’

Dr Robert Dupont, National Institute of Drug Abuse (USA) said

‘I have been apologizing to the American people for the last ten years for promoting the decriminalization of cannabis. I made a mistake. It combines the worst effects of alcohol and tobacco and has other effects that neither of these two have. In all of history no young people have ever taken cannabis regularly on a mass scale. Currently, therefore, our youngsters are in effect making themselves guinea-pigs in a tragic experiment. Thus far our research clearly suggests we will see horrendous results.’

Cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug to hard drugs. This is not inevitable but 25 times more ‘pot’ users ‘graduate’ to other hard drugs than non-users. The figures reveal that the more cannabis is used the more likely is the progression to other drugs. Over 100 uses of cannabis (three months use for a social smoker) translates into a 79 per cent follow-through to other drugs.

Liberalizers often quote Holland as an example of successful toleration. It has become the drug capital of the free world, attracting the dealers and their criminal associates by its toleration. In 1990 the Dutch Ministry of Justice admitted Holland was the crime capital of Europe. Eighty per cent of all violent crimes there are committed under the influence of drugs. In 1993 twenty per cent of the cannabis cafés were closed for dealing in hard drugs. So much for the separation of hard and soft drug use and users.

Middle-aged people who fondly remember their flirtation with a hippy generation are being deceived. Then the average THC content was 0.5%. Today it is five per cent – ten times stronger. Specially bred varieties have contents between 9 per cent and 27 per cent. By distillation this can rise to 60 per cent. This is a very strong hallucinogenic drug.

A Swedish study found more violence and self harm and suicide from the cannabis users than users of alcohol, amphetamine or heroin. Sweden does not distinguish between soft and hard drugs, employs a means for rehabilitation of addicts and promotes prevention through traditional institutions like families and schools.

Phoney freedom

The libertarian argument is deeply flawed. Do what you like with your own body so long as no one else is harmed fails to engage with the reality. ‘Stoned’ drivers kill people. Addicts need treatment (in 1997 200,000 people in the US were admitted for cannabis dependency) for which the rest of us pay. ‘Stoned’ workers are inefficient, unproductive liabilities. ‘Stoned’ parents are careless, disinterested and lacking in energy, initiative or basic awareness. There is no liberty in being enslaved to toxic chemicals.

Libertarians like to compare it to Prohibition. This is a false comparison. The latter was employed against a legal drug (alcohol), widely used and popular. Cannabis is illegal, minority use and can never be used safely. Although Prohibition ‘failed’ in political terms, it was a spectacular health success. Deaths from alcohol related illness fell by one third, psychosis plummeted, child neglect, juvenile delinquency and alcohol related divorce all dropped by half.

The drift towards legalization is foolish and gives a mixed message to children. Prevention is vital by informed education and legal enforcement. Harm reduction should be taught to those who are already trapped in drugs not as an easy way in to those who are not. Where parents, schools, youth organizations and clubs or even governments give a mixed message it is scarcely surprising if children are confused. A recent survey of young people mirrored a survey conducted in the United States twenty years ago. It found that of those who did not use cannabis their reasons were: health 90 per cent, side-effects, 70 per cent, parental disapproval 60 per cent, illegality 60 per cent.

Of those who did use cannabis, 60 per cent thought it was not dangerous, two-thirds of those because there was talk of legislation to permit it! Thirty per cent had heard it was a medicine, so it must be OK. Not true, but that’s the message they’re getting. We need to put the real facts constantly before our children.


David Partington has worked in Christian re-habilitation since 1980. He has developed the Yeldall Programme, is General Secretary of ISAAC (International Substance Abuse & Addiction Coalition) and Trustee of ACET (Aids Care & Education Trust)

The Summary:

Three babies who were born in my local hospital at Christmas did not go home with loving, doting parents. For three months they communicated their suffering by constant screaming and crying, voracious eating patterns and persistent bowel problems. They were, quite simply, withdrawing from the drugs taken by their mothers. Three babies at one time is cause for very real concern. After 22 years working with addicts I can say that it is 95 per cent certain that their mothers began the slide into addiction with cannabis.

Not everyone who uses cannabis will become a junkie but the more users, the more addicts we will see. If only one per cent of users become addicts that would translate into 10,000 per million users. Legalization, both sides accept, would see much greater use and, consequently, much greater addiction.

Arguments in favour of legalization are framed around personal liberty, reducing crime and even economics. The Economist saw potential massive tax revenues from legalized and regulated drug use. Presumably the tax would need to be carefully set at levels to avoid the temptation to continue smuggling without setting up England as a drug centre. Presumably savings on Police and Criminal Justice costs could go to the health service where it will be needed to deal with the consequent escalating drug related health problems.

Drink link flawed

There is great dispute about the gateway theory, namely that cannabis users are more likely to go on to other drugs. The 1980 Clayton and Voss study showed a ‘ten times greater linkage’ between progression from cannabis to heroin than between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The 1988 Journal of Clinical Psychiatristy revealed ‘twenty per cent of those who used cannabis three to ten times went on to use cocaine. Seventy-five per cent of those used cannabis more than 100 times went on to use cocaine.’ In 1994 the Columbia Addiction Centre reported ‘youngsters who smoke cannabis are 85 times more likely to use cocaine.’

The proponents of legalization point to Prohibition in the United States as a failure. The parallels are flawed. Cannabis is not legal, cheap, widely used or socially acceptable as alcohol had been prior to Prohibition. It is interesting to note that Prohibition brought considerable improvements in physical and mental health and it took 50 years for the States to return to pre-Prohibition levels of drinking and contrary to all the gangster movie propaganda, crime actually fell!

The argument is advanced that because the law does not stop people using drugs it doesn’t work and should be changed. This principle, applied to other laws, would be socially devastating. At present 83 per cent of young people do not use cannabis at all. Legalization would give a perverse message to the law-abiding young. The Swedish system acknowledges that ‘legislation which clearly distances itself from the use of any drug is not only legally effective but is humanitarian since it facilitates early intervention from social services, schools and parents.’

Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal. They are illegal because they are dangerous. The effects of cannabis on the brain are more potent and long-lasting than alcohol. They are aggravated by the fact that the user may be wholly unaware of the degree of continuing impairment. Professor Susan Greenfield of Oxford wrote that cannabis ‘is far more potent and therefore riskier (than alcohol). If you have just one of two joints the skills you need for driving are impaired for a full 24 hours at least.’ This is backed up by the police at the Department of Transport who warn that drug driving related accidents are rapidly increasing.

Criminal decisions

The liberalizers suggest that experience in other countries backs their case. It does not. Holland, the supreme example, between 1981 and 1993, saw cannabis cafés go from 20 to 3,000. Cannabis use by young people doubled. Seizures of heroin tripled and street crime in Amsterdam (800 in 1960) rose to 64,000 in 1986. Burglary rates are four times that of France.

Alaska decriminalized hashish in the 1980s. By 1988 it had double the number of adolescent users of any other state. The liberal measure was repealed.

In the 1960s and 70s Sweden experimented with permissive drug policies. It has now adopted a policy of social refusal and interdiction against drugs. In consequence it has the lowest incidence of drug abuse in the European Union.

Dutch society is highly hedonistic and individualistic. Pragmatism reigns, principles are annoying. The only measure of morality is ‘personal experience’. Christians are regarded as inconvenient troublemakers. Even so recent surveys and the recent election suggest that even the Dutch may be tiring of this costly ‘freedom’.

Seeing the damage caused by drugs and working with the families and friends of addicts emphasizes the wholesale misery of this world. It usually affects the weak and vulnerable most. The motto, ‘if it feels good, do it’ is not Christian and it is a lie, often believed with devastating or fatal consequences. Prevention is better than cure. Our effort should go into creating a society where the next generation has the moral backbone to say ‘No’ to anything which cheats them of their real potential. The Church should be active in this debate. It should not simply roll over and allow people to consume the next generations. Those who have seen evil defeated in the lives of hardened junkies and society’s rejects know that there is an answer to the state of our society and the legalizers and liberalizers. Our call is not to tell people to avoid reality by being stoned but to show them the Resurrection life in Jesus Christ.


Guy is Assistant Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police and works for ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers). He has extensive experience of how the law applies to the drug scene.

The Summary:

The issue for police is enforcement rather than the law. It is the practical application of dealing with the issues. Society can decide if drugs are good, drugs are bad. If you decide it is against the law, then I have to enforce it and that’s the difficulty. We’ve been trying to do it for some time and we are losing the battle. I don’t know anywhere in the world that is winning it. A Swedish police officer will tell you the same thing.

A lot of studies by eminent people have been quoted today, probably 2–1 against cannabis. I could produce as many studies in support and argue just as persuasively. But my job as a policeman is not to argue for or against but to ask you what you want me to do. The last ten years of my service has been in and out of the multi-agency crime reduction field (social exclusion, neighbourhood renewal, truancy, teenage mothers, homelessness etc). It gives me a view on enforcement. The problem is we don’t really know for sure what’s happening. Take treatment and arrest referral schemes. Anyone arrested is referred to a drugs team agency. Our information is largely confidential, so is theirs. The person arrested may, as a result, claim his crimes are down. But he has a vested interest in this reported improvement. So do all the agencies to be frank. No one knows if it’s actually true. It’s possible to make up any picture you wish.

A policeman’s lot

Mary Brett’s lecture was academically sound and she was very committed but I didn’t recognize what I heard her say. It’s not my experience. The problem for the police is a proper job description. Committed Christians would give us a different one from a non- believer, a criminal, a young person, a libertarian. The Government has to scoop that up into a kind of collective thing. We all want the answer. I don’t think there is an answer but people dump the problem on us. So I ask, ‘what do you want?’, and I’ll go out there and enforce it. But I don’t think enforcement is going to work. There is one police officer to 650 of you and we police by consent. If enough of you act up, we can’t do anything about it. So with aberrant behaviour. How many people have to do something before it is no longer aberrant? Many people feel cannabis use has reached that point. Human rights, limited police powers, and more accountability make it increasingly difficult for police to enforce the law. Anyway police don’t just do their stuff up here somewhere while others over there do their thing. For many years we’ve been linked with many other agencies.

The Association of Chief Police Officers judges the existing policy to be failing by just about every test. It’s difficult though for the police to be part of a much-needed debate without suffering the fate of Commander Paddick.

The pattern of recidivist criminal drug involvement is usually difficult family background, bad parenting, disruption in schools, truanting, initial use, criminality, exclusion, prison, recidivism. We need parenting training, drugs education in schools, youth and community work to help people use their free time properly, jobs advice and training available to all. We need programmes for getting those that have fallen away back on track.

Real accountability

Co-ordinating agencies run by different Ministries is not easy. We need common goals and common performance indicators. We need to know what ‘success’ would look like. Try incorporating 55 performance indicators into a business plan while your colleague at social services has 116 to juggle with and the man at Health has 175! We need to sort out real accountability and false accountability. Otherwise we are back trying to get the arrests up on the twenty-ninth of each month to hit the target! Our real target is to reduce the number of people using drugs and minimizing harm in the rest.

(Guy illustrated the complexity of police work, by producing a huge map – at sufficient distance for us not to be able to read the print. He explained that this was a small area of one South Coast town. It was an intelligence map. Every spot on it was a person or a safe house involved in a network of drug criminals. Around 200 contacts were marked. He folded the map and continued)

Let’s suppose that we suddenly say, ‘OK all drugs are legal.’ What are all these drug dealers going to do? We have dealers, burglars, fraudsters, credit card makers, bootleggers, passport fakers, illegal immigrant traffickers. They are all tied together by two things – bootlegging because of the Channel – but the other is drugs. Drugs fuels a whole lot of crime. Dealers are not nice people. What are they going to do if you remove their source of income? They might go into something nastier – beating up old ladies, genocide, forging World Cup tickets. Bearing in mind the amount of money kicking around, what is the impact on a Third World country, where there is a tradition of terrorism, of their not having the income from drugs?

Should we legalize drugs? We have our personal views as police officers but the Association of Chief Police Officers official stance is, ‘We don’t know enough to make a decision.’


Martin is a practising Barrister, specializing in tax, Chancery and ecclesiastical law.

The Summary:

Is the possible legalization of drugs a legal topic? Simple question, difficult answer. The task of the lawyer is to enforce the law as it is, not as he thinks it should be. The same must apply to the judiciary. Law reform is the business of Parliament and yet, of course, the interpretation of the law, case law and precedent determine how that law will be understood and administered.

The separation of powers between the legislature (Parliament), executive (Cabinet) and the interpretive (Judiciary) branches of government, in theory, reduce the possibility of tyranny. There are sound reasons, therefore, for not having lawyers too closely involved in law reform – including the legalization of drugs. Needless to say, Parliament is full of lawyers and they can contribute by knowing how the law actually works in practice.

We need to be clear about the connection, or lack of it, between law and morality. If they are closely linked, whose morality do we in force in a multi- cultural society or do we allow each group to regulate itself? The Ottoman Empire came pretty close to this. In this case you make clear that the law is only there to keep the peace, not to enforce morality.

Is legalization of drugs purely a moral question? If drugs lead to an increase in crime, self-harm or exploitation of the vulnerable, then it is not. These are social and political issues as well but still not legal questions. The Lawyers Christian Fellowship, for example, has not taken a stance in this debate.

Resource or change

If the law is being flouted, that is a legal question for it brings the law, which holds society together and protects individuals, into disrepute. If the police cannot cope then either they must be given more resources or the law must change.

If change in the law is needed, the law must be obeyed until it is changed. Though it is true to say the judges may, by their rulings and sentencing, give clear indication of this need for change. Society, in its treatment of the convicted, may also give a clear indication of its real view of the law under which it lives. The classic case must be Rex v Wilkes (1770). Lord Mansfield was dealing with an order for committal to prison of John Wilkes, the scurrilous opposition journalist. This caused a riot (‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was the cry). His fellow judge pronounced, ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall.’ Mansfield did not disagree but went on to discover a technical fault in the order which allowed him to overturn it and quell the riot. We see and understand his defence of the law and his applied common sense.

Judges cannot change the law. They could pass lighter sentences, make it more difficult to obtain convictions or give a liberalizing steer. But they do not like trespassing into the political arena. Legalization of drugs is a political not a legal question. There are moral issues here but the key question must be what the consequences of legalization will be. The desired end must be the elimination or minimizing of drug-taking. The question is how that is best achieved.