Drugs rethink means scrapping “grandfather rights”

Image from "Cigarettes and beer" by Mister Graves on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licenceA government report this week found that there is no link between tough penalties and drug use. This has prompted calls from various politicians for a review of drugs laws. While it’s clearly a complex issue, it’s hard to argue with a rigorous report or with scientific research into addiction. Perhaps there is a case for changing the law so that addicts are treated as people with medical conditions rather than criminals – if necessary as a mental health issue with compulsory treatment, as addicts are hardly in the best position to judge whether they need help.

It’s clear that a comprehensive review of drugs laws would have to include alcohol and tobacco. These hold what I refer to as “grandfather rights”. This is a term that refers to something that is exempt from a current law or regulation because it already existed prior to the law’s introduction, even though it would certainly not be allowed were it new. Examples of grandfather rights include domain names: UK academic institutions must choose a domain at least three characters long, but some universities such as Leicester have two-letter domains (le.ac.uk) as they pre-date the rules. Another example is driving licences. A standard UK car driving licence used to allow motorists to drive a small van or a minibus, but this is no longer the case. Anyone who obtained their licence before the change may still drive the larger vehicles, but new drivers may not. Likewise, alcohol and tobacco are only treated differently from all the currently illegal drugs for historical reasons. If they were discovered now, they would most certainly not be legal.

Many of the experts who have spoken out in favour of changing the approach of drugs actually support a tightening of the law around alcohol and tobacco – something ignored by the group of people I term the “drugs lobby”, that is those who want to see drugs legalised because they want to use them, even if they try to dress it up with scientific or political reasoning. Professor David Nutt was famously sacked as the government’s drugs advisor after he criticised their re-upgrading of cannabis. He is often cited by those who wish to see cannabis decriminalised, but how many people realise how much he would like to see tough new restrictions on alcohol, and ultimately for it to be banned? The Green Party is known as a political party in the UK that wants to see a move away from the criminalisation of drug use. Yet it too wants a tougher policy towards alcohol, including a complete ban on advertising and sponsorship, significantly higher taxes, and much harsher drink-driving penalties. Needless to say, neither has much time for the tobacco industry, either.

The very same arguments that can be used to justify a rethink of policy towards the drugs that are currently illegal necessarily show that there needs to be a rethink when it comes to drugs that are currently legal. You can’t argue for policy to be based on level of harm but then exempt certain substances arbitrarily. If there is good reason to cast aside the historical origins of drugs laws, and to ignore international, legal and social customs and conventions, there is no reason to continue with the glaring anomaly that still allows people to smoke tobacco in public and in front of their children, and that sees our hospitals full of drunks at the weekend, receiving treatment for cuts and grazes when they should really be receiving psychological help.

But here’s the rub. It’s already politically very difficult for a government to be seen to be relaxing laws on illegal drugs. Telling the addicts it’s going to be harder to get their booze and fags would be trickier still, and is yet another reason why such a comprehensive review of drugs policy is unlikely to happen.

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