Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The problem with legalising drugs

While the US elections dominated the news for the last week, two US states – Washington and Colorado – took the opportunity to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. For proponents of legalisation and for those who believe that the “war on drugs” has failed, this was seen as a major victory. But having thought somewhat extensively about the problems that drugs pose to modern societies, I have to say I have doubts as to just how much of a victory this was.

Firstly, and from a more bureaucratic perspective, it is only within the borders of these individual states that the recreational use of marijuana is now possible. These Acts were also passed in direct defiance of federal law, policy and it must be said, Obama’s inclinations. If the history of drugs has taught us anything this will mean that while one might be allowed to consume marijuana “recreationally” within the borders of the respective states, any federal measures will take precedence and will in all likelihood override any gains made by the states. Moreover it is at the federal level that national and international drug policy is made and enforced, with international consequences – while the inhabitants of Washington and Colorado may be able to toke up in the comfort of their own homes, the real “war on drugs,” the one the pundits of legalisation should really be worried about, will rage on.

My second worry is a little more substantive and concerns the pragmatic and theoretical concept of legalisation itself. In my personal encounters with proponents of legalisation, and especially of marijuana, most differentiate between marijuana and “other” drugs. Marijuana, their argument generally goes, has numerous health benefits, is not very addictive (taking into account habit as well as chemical dependency), hurts relatively few people, and is even used medically. Furthermore with the legalisation of marijuana the quality will be guaranteed, exploitative relationships will be eliminated and the courts will be freed up to deal with far more pressing problems. All of these “facts” are indeed true.

But it is the logic of legalisation that is rarely taken into account. It seems to me that often legalisation is simply a knee-jerk reaction to prohibition. The argument goes something like this: marijuana is not bad, but is made bad by being illegal, and therefore it is the law’s fault and this should be changed. Moreover the above argument(s) all rely on a primary distinction, between marijuana and “other” drugs. But drugs, in their potency, use, and manufacture all lie on a spectrum – it is not simply that one substance can be “good” and another “bad”. Cocaine, for instance, is still used medically, as is morphine (the precursor of heroin) and so on. So while marijuana may indeed be less “damaging”, from both an institutional and normative perspective, if you legalise the one you put yourself in the position of having to continue to differentiate between marijuana and other drugs, the distinctions of which become, in my experience, ultimately subjective. This is not exactly a good basis for law. Of course when I have told this to people I have been told to stop talking rubbish and once again been informed about the benefits of marijuana. The distinction outlined above, my actual concern, is left ignored.

The same holds true for the concept of “recreational” drug use. What distinguishes recreational drug use from other forms of use? Rate of use? Addictive potential? Monthly spending? All of these again encounter a slippery normative slope – where does one draw the line? I know people that use cocaine rarely but marijuana heavily. Does this make them “addicts” or would the intake of the two drugs have to be reversed for the person to be thought of as such? Addiction is as much a social phenomenon as it is a psychological one.

From a personal perspective I do think there are different “levels” of drug use, and from a pharmacological perspective there are definitely drugs that have a higher addictive potential to others. But simply arguing for the blanket legalisation of even one substance makes problematic the very concept of legalisation. We see this in debates concerning two very dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco. What is needed, I think, is a far more critical and self-reflexive engagement with what we think constitutes a drug, why we think a substance should be deemed a drug (Ritalin, for instance, has similar pharmacological effects to that of ecstasy) and then, and only then, enter into debates as to how we might intelligently legalise/regulate the production, distribution and consumption of these substances. Simply jumping on the legalisation bandwagon, in my mind, paradoxically continues the logic of the “war on drugs” – the very paradigm that has caused so much damage in the first place.

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    • CS

      The recreational use of dagga is the least of the reasons I would want to legalize it. If you legalize dagga you basically legalize the cannabis plant, and if you legalize the cannabis plant you legalize one of the most amazing agricultural crops known to man. It’s history as a crop is longer than most civilizations are old, and it’s regulation is younger than a lot of people alive today.

      It’s got literally thousands of uses but it got banned for only one. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in fact supports the legalizing of the Hemp crop. The Agriculture Research Council’s Dr Graham Thompson has been busy with the fibre for years. A hemp house was built in Noordhoek. It took 5 days to assemble on site. It’s probably the greenest house in SA.

      The focus of the whole dagga issue should shift. It’s not fair hanging the drug label around it’s neck because anybody who mentions the words “cannabis” or “hemp” are either seen as a dagga-kop or a loser hippie.

      Dagga has its negatives too. Just like you can’t drive under the influence of alcohol, you shouldn’t drive under the influence of dagga. Dagga might be addictive in some cases, but nicotine is almost always addictive. I think the only positives for nicotine is that it creates jobs and sin-tax is lucrative.

      The cannabis plant’s positives far outweighs it’s negatives, and even outweighs the positives of both alcohol and nicotine, probably combined.

      The Law sent an innocent thing to prison…

    • The Big Fig

      “Moreover the above argument(s) all rely on a primary distinction, between marijuana and “other” drugs…What is needed, I think, is a far more critical and self-reflexive engagement with what we think constitutes a drug, why we think a substance should be deemed a drug”

      I too believe that legalisation (blanket or specific) would be problematic and in some cases impractical.

      I also believe that legalisation will never happen for the simple reason that there are too many vested corporate interests with considerable lobbying power.

      In my daily interactions with people I also try and enlarge people’s perceptions of what constitutes a drug and in so doing hopefully illustrate to them the disconnect in logic that is central to the War On Drugs i.e. those drugs are bad, these drugs are good.

    • Librarian

      There is already a sliding scale – I may buy aspirin over the counter, I may not buy morphine under any circumstances. There is a similar drug argument with performance enhancing drugs in sport. One medical professor believes that they should be allowed and strictly controlled. This would avert the dangerous practices and overdoses. It would also answer the argument that the Tour de France cannot be completed without the help of stamina-aiding substances.

    • Dave Harris

      What an idiotic article!
      Referring to dagga/weed/marijuana “dope” shows your ignorance of this cannabis plant that is used for a multitude of purposes – recreational, spiritual rites, medicine even before Christ was born!

      One of the main reasons why the establishment wants to continue outlawing this naturally occurring plant, is that it can be freely grown (as weed grow without much effort) in your back yard! So using it for medicinal purposes means big pharma won’t make their obscene profits from peddling their toxic chemical concoctions (anti-depressants, painkillers etc) using the doctors and psychiatrists etc.

      Its HIGH TIME (pun intended), that SA followed suit and legalized dagga and redirected their valuable enforcement and legal resources to better use.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Laws are made to protect people from their own stupidity or to protect a sector of society from the ramifications of that stupidity. Sport introduced anti-doping laws to protect sport – Sponsors very seldom want their products associated with an athlete who keels over dead on national TV (ironically, that is precisely what happened during the first ever televised Tour de France).

      The difficult part is defining what constitutes a ‘drug’. Obese people will tell you that they are addicted to food (we really can’t ban that). Anyone who has gone without coffee for a period of time and then drunk a cup will tell you that it has a decidedly drug like effect on the body (don’t even think of banning my morning coffee). We all know that alcohol is a very dangerous drug (prohibition taught us the foolishness of attempting to ban that). We now have these new ‘designer drugs’ coming out of the orient which are incredibly dangerous and are creating complete havoc but they can’t be banned as every time the legislation is changed, they simply make a minute change in the formula.

      Of all the legal and illegal ‘drugs’ that mankind uses in our attempt to prove Darwin wrong, Cannabis has got to be one of the least damaging (unless you happen to be part of the slightly less than 2% who react badly to it). The problem with it is that government control is difficult and growing your own is a lot easier than paying government taxes.

    • Simon Howell

      Dave Harris – the article’s original title was ‘Drugs, Legalisation, and Short-Lived Celebrations.’ It was edited and that title attached (among other problems). I am fully aware of the differentiation, and would never refer to marijuana as ‘dope,’ which if you follow my argument is so normatively laden a concept that it should no longer have use in intelligent discussions of drugs (even ‘drugs’ fall into that category, however the term ‘narcotic’ actually refers to the opiates and not all substances).

    • Joe Soap

      Where do we draw the line? Tea, sugar, coffee, chocolate, are stimulants that can cause some form of dependency and harm, people get a high from running (introduce jogging laws), overeating for emotional reasons causes huge health problems; just imagine, in terms of the law being allowed to only eat so many kilojoules a day or be fined, and third time offenders sent to jail.

      I guess I fit into the legalise dagga group, otherwise life gets too complicated.

    • K1d

      Legal – power, money, religion, sex, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food, pharmacy products, prescription med.s, physicality, tv, etc, etc, etc
      ilLegal – (even excluding the misuse of any of the above) the list grows increasingly endless;
      humans need an “opiate”, we’re just wired that way

    • Richard Catto

      Heroin is also used medically under the name diamorphine (UK), according to its Wikipedia article.

      I hold that the prohibition against all proscribed drugs should be ended.

      It is already been established that alcohol causes more damage than both cocaine and heroin use combined.

      Hospital Emergency Rooms are filled with the victims of drunken abuse. Alcoholics harm others often. The ERs also see their share of drug addicts who have overdosed. Drug addicts mostly harm themselves. Alcoholics (and even just casual drinkers) not only harm themselves but others too.

      Alcohol is a drug. It is the most harmful drug of all and it is the only one freely available with no legal proscription against it.

      Most of society still holds the opinion that illegal drug users are worse than those who drink, but the reverse is true and it’s time for this generation to listen to the facts and not the hype.

    • Rory Short

      The main problem with criminalising any drug is that it opens up a conduit for criminals to make money and keeping the conduit open costs society lenty money in the form of policing etc.. Looked at objectively this is logically crazy. It would be much better by far to decriminalise all addictive substances at the same time as nationalising their distribution as a medical service for the community because the use of drugs is a medical issue not a criminal one.

    • nogov ernment

      No corrupt government or anyone who thinks they can decide for others will stop the people from doing what they want!

    • Joe Soap

      Legalizing drugs reduces use in Netherlands and Portugal:

    • Grant Walliser

      The greatest arguement about the legalisation of drugs always seems to be the burden on society of all the addicts we would possibly see. There seems to be no other argument. What other possible reasons could we have for prohibiting people from choosing to do with their lives precisely what they want to? And what gives us that right? Well, those against would argue that the impact on their society gives them that right.

      So here is your simple solution. Legalise and tax to a level that pays for the impact on society. The users therefore pay for those who use and can’t handle via a tax. The clean living folk can carry on going to church and sipping their orange juice and not pay a cent towards the rehab of users. They additionally live in a society where organised crime has been dealt a serious blow and the police have massive resources to deal with real crime instead of chasing around the place locking up people having fun. Win-win.

      If it is a horrible disaster, we start making substances illegal again but at least we can say we are doing it because we KNOW what will happen. Most drugs have a reputation that far exceeds their actual effects or danger to society. Lets be bold and see where it takes us, it really can’t be worse than the organised crime, killings, drug mule executions and incarcerations we have now. If society implodes we can simply go back to the status quo.

    • Olds

      The laws that we have are not being policed effectively as it is. I say legalise all drugs and leave the cops to police violent crime, i.e. Murder, driving under any influence, theft, etc.

      Kids would probably not see drugs as cool if they are legal.

      Addiction could be treated without stigma and prisons probably not so full.

      Education about drugs should be increased so that people make informed decisions about their lives. From the comments above it is obvious that the real shortcoming in our system is, once again, education.

    • Billy C

      Grant and Rory have the right idea. Prohibition has historically driven the supply of drugs underground into the criminal realm. The US “war on drugs” has achieved little other than criminalising Mexico, at the cost of more than 50000 lives and boosted the growing of heroin poppies by the Taliban in Afganistan , under the US and UK soldiers’ noses.

      Controlled legalisation cannot be any more destructive than prohibition and govt regulation will pay for itself in the form of taxes

      Just watch what happens when the nanny state bans tobacco products in SA, the sales will move through the same merchants that presently supply dope and the State/poor Zim farmers will earn little or nothing in legitimate income

    • The Creator

      I’m afraid I don’t think that this article has identified any problem at all with legalising drugs. If the author thinks he has done so, he is mistaken.

    • Just breathe

      Was it Einstein who pointed out that repeating a failed strategy indefinitely is an indication of either insanity or simple mindedness?

      The fact is that the citizens of two American states have decided that the war on drugs is a failure and that it is time to stop it and figure out a new way to do things …

      Logically, in a free society, citizens who choose to damage themselves in any way, among the many described in these varied comments, should be free to do so, provided they do not cause harm to others… Jub Jub has just demonstrated what should happen to someone who abuses a mind altering substance and then kills people… the law took its course as it should have.

      As to what people do in their own space … well the Dutch have demonstrated for decades that people can smoke cannabis in coffee shops and the world doesn’t end… the problems such as they have, are [apparently] caused by outsiders rushing to abuse their space, because they live in fascist places that want to control all of society…

      Notwithstanding this, even the Poms have apparently downgraded their criminalised rating of this “Hemp”… on which their former foes “The Boers” fed their horses, so they could outride the “khakis”, and after which their shirts were named.

      Yes! The M&G famously published handbills years back promoting the sale of ‘Hemp” at 19th century produce markets… before the control freaks set out to limit the competition for cotton and alcohol.

    • Stephen Browne

      The fact that mankind is still collectively debating the use of cannabis recreationally, medically, and commercially is as embarrassing as the one over whether two men should be allowed to bonk. Bugger the rest of the ‘drugs’ or whatever the hell you want to call them. It remains that the average perception of the substance is juvenile to the point of hilarity.

    • Enough Said

      The CIA are the worlds biggest drug syndicate. That is why drugs are policed.

    • The Praetor

      When will the people in their ‘Ivory Towers’, who feel they have the right to decide what is good or bad, for other people learn.

      Keep anything away from people by banning it, serves no purpose than making people curious about it.

      Its the same as hiding a firearm and banning a child from touching it. At the very first instance they find an oppertunity, their curiosity will drive them to seek it out.

      You overcome this problem by satisfying their curiosity, emptying the firearm, and letting them handle it, and explaining that it can be very dangerous, if not respected.

      The Praetor

    • Mr. Direct

      @Grant Walliser

      I think society already pays a significant amount in an attempt to police drugs, so I am not sure how much more would be paid to clean up the mess.

      Surely it’s consumption and social issues would be similar to that of alcohol?

      In fact, you may find that legalisation would improve quality standards, which may actually reduce problems.

      I am all for the legalisation of cannabis, even though I do not use it, and never will. And I also not not know anybody who does…

    • Concern?

      While I agree that physically, weed is far less harmful than alcohol, I am concerend about its effects on kids. I serve on a school GB and we inavariably pick up that a kid has started smoking weed because of on key factor. They just lose interest – in their schoolwork and their sport – just about everything – and their performance just slides. Somehow weed seems to have a demotivating impact on schoolgoing age children. This normally progresses to hanging out with the wrong crowd and buying weed from petrol attendants or security at the local mall (in our case). Far too ofen (in the majority of cases unfortunately) smoking weed is the beginning of a progresson to the harder stuff and sometimes, addiction. When it gets really bad we tend to rotate the addicted kid between the local schools so that his/or her influence on other kids is less severe. We generally don’t find that problem or effects with alcohol. So while I personally have no problem with weed, my question would be how to protect our children from messing up their school careers, which is the foundation for the rest of their lives.

    • iamiam

      Why change the title, should have left it as is besides I have no problem with drugs being legalized. Most are already anyway.

      The most useful plant on the planet with some of the least dangerous properties isn’t however legal in SA and it’s long overdue to being totally legal. I mean it’s an amazing herb, for God’s sake.

    • greatgodpan

      i think concerns comment is spot on……i was one of those kids many years ago…..whilst i no longer use any substances apart from tobacco and alcohol and i have no problem with the concept of legalizing weed there just is no way that you can tell me weed is a neutral natural harmless product…it is not……in young teenage kids it affects their motivation and is a pre cursor to experimenting with other substances…in my case it was weed,alcohol,mandrax,acid and various other perscription and over the counter substances taken in large overdose type quantities in variuos various combinations in order to cause a trip……..a common effect is paranoia and long term cronic use of weed causes many (if not most) youngsters to become withdrawn,anti social hermits….or they move on to other substances and end up dead or involved in crime….this is my personal experience so dont bother arguing with me about it…….fortunatly i also think it is part of the normal teenage rebellion thing and many ,like me, naturally grow up and out grow it to become normal well functioning members of society…..

    • Momma Cyndi


      Are those children problem children because of the drug or because they have problems which they self medicate with the drugs?

      My main issue with making it illegal is the very problem that you have – the inability to control its sale. I can shame a person for selling alcohol to a child because it is in a public shop, I don’t even see the guy selling the weed to the child. Then comes the issue of contaminants ….. whites and weed are pretty common in SA and not a good idea for anyone, let alone kids.

      I was one of those disgusting parents who never banned anything. I told my kids what to do in the case of an overdose of any substance and scared the bejesus out of them. The watered down wine was a staple at Sunday lunch and they were always told that if they wanted to try something then they do it at home where I can protect them. Strangely enough, neither of my kids has any interest in either alcohol or drugs – in fact, when they started going to parties, they were horrified at the way kids drank specifically to get drunk or took ‘tablets’ from strangers without even questioning what they were.

      (by the way, the local dopehead gets his stash from the school ground of a very prominent, christian, model C school in our area and it smells like they steep it in benzine – that is the reality of life today)

    • Occams Razor

      I won’t have ANYONE dictate what I can and cannot put into my body.

    • iamiam

      If I want to grow and consume a completely natural herb blessed upon us by this generous universe, whether I smoke, eat or drink it. I think I have every right.

      The argument about people losing interest etc. Interest in what? Materialism, superiority, prejudice vanity. ego, greed, etc. etc These are all unnecessary evils.

      The world would be a more positive, healthier, richer, environmentally friendlier, more humane, less poverty, happier, the list goes on.

      I’ve been waiting for the day the world sees the truth and this insanity ends.

      One Love

    • Joe Soap

      Big names linked to drug trafficking:

      “A number of allegations have been written about and several local, state, and federal investigations have taken place related to the notion of the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport as a CIA drop point in large scale cocaine trafficking beginning in the latter part of the 1980s. The topic has received some press coverage that has included allegations of awareness, participation and/or coverup involvement of figures such as future presidents Bill Clinton,[9][10][11][12] George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, as well future Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Saline County prosecutor Dan Harmon (who was convicted of numerous felonies including drug and racketeering charges in 1997[13]). The Mena airport was also associated with Adler Berriman (Barry) Seal, an American drug smuggler and aircraft pilot who flew covert flights for the CIA and the Medellín Cartel.[14]”

      There is a lot more information where the above came from:


    • Olds

      Perhaps kids on drugs end up in crime because they are sold these drugs by criminals. If the end of the Mafia came about because legalising alcohol. Just think what legalising drugs would mean to our tax coffers, not forget the gang problem which cannot be controlled because they wield too much power at present.

    • Enough Said

      I like this – Ten years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. One decade after this unprecedented experiment, drug abuse is down by half.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Note – as Enough Said has pointed out, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. This is different from Legalising all drugs, and moves the legal focus and any punishment away from the user. The former president of Mexico and the current president of Columbia are among a growing number of prominent people calling for a different approach – decriminalising drugs – to the failed war on drugs.

    • Concern?

      Good question momma cyndi
      I think kids are just curious and adventurous, and by far the majority will experment and walk away – the more impressionable, maybe with self esteem uncertainties, are possibly more vulnerable. But there are those who come from fantastic homes with caring parents and those who come from really dysfunctional homes who get too involved and end up as disaster cases.

      A dear friend’s son is a hopeless herion addict. The rest of the childrem (3 others) have all got degrees and good professions, but the entire family lives a nightmare life, under constant threat from pushers who have all of their details and a son and sibling who is quite frankly, a terrible burden. They have done nothing to deserve it. So in the end, drug addiction, like alcohol addiction does impact on others. Once the parents pass on, who will take care of him?

    • Momma Cyndi


      I hear what you are saying. I’ve seen the same thing happen to a friend of my daughter. Great parents and one kid goes completely off the rails. The chances of a kid from a good home in a good neighborhood going off the rails is a lot lower than for a child from a dysfunctional home in a bad neighborhood though.

      Unfortunately, it having kids is a roll of the dice and you do the best you can. It is just very sad that so many parents just don’t have the tools and resources to do as much as they would like to if the wheels do come off.

    • The dictator to save you from yourselves

      Like alcohol, set an age limit at 18. Anyone supplying any age restricted drink, smoke, video game, movie get charged with corruption of a minor and labelled with paedophiles on a register. Once people are adults, the law can treat them as such and they bear their own consequences.