You might not be as unadventurous as you thought.  In reality, fewer students have taken drugs than students themselves think, a Student Beans survey appears to reveal.  This surprising revelation came out just days before the UK Drugs Policy Commission (UKDPC) concludes that the decriminalisation of cannabis should be seriously considered.

1,903 UK students guessed this summer that ‘most’ or ‘some’ students had taken illegal drugs whilst at university (37% and 53% respectively), yet almost half of these students (45%) said they had never taken drugs themselves.  Meanwhile, the UKDPC judged the government’s current drugs legislation to be ineffective, in a report based on the six-year study.

Is there some sort of contradiction between the findings of the separate studies?  Not especially.  Indeed both studies suggest misconceptions about the prevalence of drug-use; the UKDPC report a decline in drug-use in between 2004 and 2010, which is ‘Contrary to popular opinion’.

With less people taking drugs than perhaps we had imagined (although the Student Beans survey is clearly in a different research league to the UKDPC’s meticulous investigation, enlightening though it is), why, then, has UK drugs legislation been deemed unsuccessful?

The fact is that the UK records more drug-related deaths than any other EU country. Current drugs legislation ‘bears little resemblance to what actually happens in practice’, reports the UKDPC, with relatively few prison sentences being given out for drug possession, drug addicts often being charged for related criminal offences instead, and a noticeable over-proportion of penalties being given to certain ethnic groups.

New legislation, or ‘a fresh approach’, the report concludes, should be based on promoting ‘responsible behaviour’ in drug-users through appropriate support to them and their families.  What the UKDPC repeatedly calls for, however, is ‘scrutiny of evidence’ of what the UK needs and what actually works.

Then gently, with many ‘if’s, ‘could’s and ‘potentially’s, the report prepares us for its cautious proposal that the decriminalisation of drugs may not be such a bad thing and may even be beneficial (based on scrutinised ‘evidence’, naturally).

It’s not a proposal for some sort of drugs free-for-all.  The report is, of course, more specific, advocating the decriminalisation of possession, principally, and of nothing more than cannabis (for now).  Surprisingly, it is put across in a way that could convince even the biggest flinchers at any past suggestions that the rules on illegal substance should be relaxed.

Home-grown cannabis ‘for personal use only’ and possessing it in small amounts could be overlooked, saving the police and criminal justice system ‘time and resources’ to deal with bigger problems:  gang-violence, huge sums of money, domestic drug-farm slavery, and many other ethical issues surrounding the drugs industry that so often go overlooked by us students who are warned off drugs merely from the point of view of not damaging our own health.

How tempting it might be, though, for the student to generate a bit of extra income.  But selling a bit of your home-grown produce would still be a criminal offence.  To clarify, it is ‘legalisation’ not ‘decriminalisation’ that would permit the commercialisation of drugs.

What rests uneasy with some of us, is the contentious link between making something non-criminal and condoning it, or playing down the risks.  Though, if the risks of drug-taking don’t make it a moral issue for you, what about the health of those for whom the current deterrent of taking certain drugs is merely to do with the law? True, the health effects may be negligible, since the UKDPC has looked at other parts of the world that have gone ahead with decriminalisation, and believes that allowing possession of small amounts of cannabis ‘would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use’.  But consider UK students’ notoriously unrestrained attitude to alcohol… Student Beans might have very different survey results next time round, were decriminalisation of cannabis implemented.

The UKDPC’s very credible six-year investigation has clearly shown us that current UK drug policy is in need of an overhaul, and the group of experts who composed it have pointed out the appealing side-effects of decriminalisation.  New policies based on evidence would surely be more effective at helping those whose lives are most ruined by drugs, but do we trust that we wouldn’t see more people drawn into the same kind of predicament?

Alice Jones

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