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The BBC's Dan Damon
examines the implications if drugs were decriminalised
 real 28k

Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
The decriminalisation debate
Chemist's shop
Ecstasy pharmacies? They could one day be legal
By Dan Damon

The year is 2015. You're young and looking for fun on a Friday night.

You feel like going dancing, and you think things will go better if you get high. So you pop along to the chemist.

From the shelves by the pharmacy section, you take down some boxes and look at the labels.

There are lists of ingredients - MDMA, MDEA, MDA, MEA, MBDB and PMA, by percentage and purity levels - but actually you're more attracted by the picture of some very healthy looking bronzed bodies dancing up close on the back of Canada Duck Ecstasy.

Moral judgement

"Unlimited Beats, No Head Shock," says the slogan on the front.

Think hard, you may be asked to vote on these ideas one day

You buy two, one for tonight, one for tomorrow. The middle-aged woman at the till doesn't even notice you as you hand over your money - she's too interested in the shifty looking guy hanging round the surgical appliance section.

If decriminalisation campaigners get their way this will happen, first in Europe, later in the USA, when governments admit what some must already suspect - that the War on Drugs is a failure.

But for many other people, taking the criminal law out of drug use would be the last sign that society had finally lost all moral judgement.

There are four ways to distribute drugs, and most countries choose the worst - letting criminals do it

Danny Kushlick, Transform
Think hard, you may be asked to vote on these ideas one day.

Danny Kushlick, director of the Transform campaign group based in Bristol, says there are four ways to distribute drugs, and most countries choose the worst - letting criminals do it.

The other possible methods depend on the kind of drug. So-called hard drugs - addictive substances like heroin, cocaine, and Crack - should be available on prescription only from doctors, he says, because then addiction levels could be monitored and addicts offered counselling.

Chemical warfare

Soft drugs like cannabis should be sold in licensed cafes or bars, like alcohol.

Dutch cannabis cafe
Dutch cannabis cafes: an example of relaxed policing
And "recreational chemicals" that appeal to young people, including Ecstasy and amphetamines, should be distributed through pharmacies under trained supervision, the way cold remedies are in some countries today.

Then purity levels would be guaranteed, because pharmaceutical companies would produce them, not criminals working in basement laboratories using drain cleaner to adulterate the drug and increase their profits.

"Under the prohibition system, young people are left in an incredibly vulnerable situation, a totally unregulated, uncontrolled, unlicensed trade in very powerful drugs. It's a dangerous and dirty market," he says.

These people are talking about giving out poisons

Grainne Kenny, Europe Against Drugs
But to Grainne Kenny, president of Europe Against Drugs (EURAD) in Dublin, this is the same as declaring chemical warfare on the young.

"These people are talking about giving out poisons. Decriminalisation would mean no control on the supply, promotion and export of stupefying substances. Families would be left on their own, trying to deal with increasingly violent and deluded addicts."

Harm reduction

For decriminalisers, Holland's cannabis café scene and Switzerland¿s needle exchange booths are examples of how relaxed policing can bring about what's called "harm reduction".

The bottom line is about reducing death and disease and crime

Ethan Nadelman, Lindesmith Drug Policy Center
Cannabis use has been steadily falling in Holland and is reported to be lower per capita than in the UK, where possession is still formally a serious offence.

The spread of viruses like HIV and Hepatitis C through needle sharing is reduced by free syringes.

Ethan Nadelman of the Lindesmith Drug Policy Center in New York blames the US Government for allowing 200,000 Americans to be infected with AIDS by forcing them to hide their addiction and share dirty needles.

"The bottom line ultimately is not about drugs and drug abuse, the bottom line is about reducing the death and disease and crime associated with our failed prohibitionist policies," he says.


But he admits it does depend on your view of human nature - do you think in a free-drug society people would take a rational decision not to become victims, or would they be dragged down into dependency?

The most likely outcome of this debate, in the short term, is that countries that have not started to debate decriminalisation seriously, including the UK, will watch carefully those that have.

The latest experiment is taking place in Germany, where in some regions registered addicts can receive heroin at injection centres without having to agree to any attempt at withdrawal.

If that really does bring down the level of street robbery, slow the spread of disease and reduce policing costs, it's a step that other governments will find hard to resist.

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