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Report from The York Union: “The Big Drugs Debate”

Image credit: Flickr
Image credit: Flickr
Image credit: Flickr

In a 2014 survey run by the Guardian, it was revealed that almost a third of British respondents had taken an illegal drug. 87% of those who had taken an illegal substance did not feel they had a general problem with them, 84% who use illegal substances take them at home and 93% of the responded had used cannabis. A government report of the 2014/2015 year, indicated that one in five of 16- to 24-year-olds had taken an illegal substance at some point during that year.

Attitudes to drugs in Britain seem apathetic. Some of our leading politicians openly admit to taking them in their youth. It takes just seconds of searching to find a guide video on how to roll a joint for cannabis on YouTube. The question that can be raised, therefore, is the following one: Will society one day permit the consumption of drugs that are today considered illegal?

Packed to the gunwhales, last week’s York Union debate on the legalisation of illicit substances did not disappoint.

In favour of legalisation was Joana Ramiro, a journalist whose work has been published by Russia Today and the Morning Star. Arguing against was Peter Hitchens, the Mail on Sunday columnist, well-known for his tough stance against drug use and drug legalisation.

Ramiro began with a tale of her native Portugal. In the 1990s, 1% of 11,000,000 Portuguese citizens used heroin. Walking down the street in her youth, Ramiro would be chastised by her family for looking down the alleys and in the run-down houses. There lingered drug takers, who, the Portuguese believed, rubbed shoulders with criminals and vagrants. Drug use was a sign of moral decadence.

In 2001, the Portuguese government decriminalised the possession of all drugs, something that Ramiro believes has had a number of positive consequences: annual deaths by overdose have dropped from eighty in 2001 to sixteen in 2012; a previous 1000-a-year rate of HIV infection now stands at fifty-six a year; the number of regular heroin users has halved. Drug abusers receive counselling and assistance. Overall, Ramiro insists that Portuguese decriminalisation has had a tremendous social benefit that would likely be replicated if drug use were legalised elsewhere.

Peter Hitchens opened with his own questions. How many people in the room had taken drugs? The majority of audience members, it emerged. “Don’t worry,” he mused, “you won’t be prosecuted for it.” And sure enough, when asked, no one had been taken to court for doing so. With members of the audience confident that they had open minds, Hitchens proceeded with his case, the outcome of which would decide whether the University of York is a university or a “nightclub that gives out degrees.”

Hitchens argued that a casual tolerance of drug use has existed since the 1970s, growing to a point where being found in possession of “soft” illegal drugs by policemen rarely, if ever, leads to a visit to the court. The enforcement of drug laws has been poor in both the UK and generally in Europe. Hitchens attributes the main proponents of the legalisation side to a movement he calls ‘Big Dope’, composed of selfish businessmen who intend to make small fortunes at the expense of ordinary people’s mental and physical health, through the sale of mind-altering substances at competitive prices.

Following opening statements, the York Union permitted forty minutes of questioning from the audience, topics of which ranged from mental health and medicine to international law and the market.

Many would argue that it should be up to a person to decide for themselves whether they should take drugs, not the state. Ramiro believed that if the state legalised drugs and ensured that production was regulated, drug users would act sensibly, citing statistics from Portugal and from other places in which drugs have been legalised. Hitchens however insisted that we know drugs can lead to negative consequences. If we had a drug, he suggested, that we know would damage a user’s legs beyond repair, what sense is there in legalising the drug and taxing its consumption to fund prosthetic legs?

The debaters saw different solutions to drug abuse. Ramiro would focus on providing facilities for rehabilitation, as were offered to drug users in Portugal following the decriminalisation along with welfare reforms and employment schemes; Hitchens, on the other hand, believed firmly that drug use is a criminal offence and criminal offenders deserve prosecution. There should be no stigma, he argued, around making examples of people, as has worked so well in the past in cases of drink-driving and seatbelt use.

Most questions went to the Mail on Sunday journalist. Hitchens took no prisoners, asking if a curious audience member would really permit individuals to induce mental distress if the state could make a comfortable tax out of drug regulation. Perhaps Ramiro became unstuck when asked to apply her arguments to harder drugs, such as cocaine. Not everyone shared her confidence that drug users would consume their newly-legalised products responsibly. However, it takes a thick skin to permit Hitchens’s blunt style of debating. “No case [for legalisation] has been made in logic or reason other than emotional spasms and dubious reports,” he declared at the end of the debate.

Astonishingly, the debate ended as a draw: the audience could not decide whether illicit drugs are ready to be legally consumed. But both parties could take the result as a victory of a kind: for Ramiro, perhaps the public is almost ready to end the stigma around drug use; for Hitchens, the masses have snapped out of their drug-induced daze. Both journalists were swamped with questioners afterwards; the debate will go on for some time.

The motion of the debate read, “This House believes illicit drugs should be legalised.” With sixty-eight votes for, sixty-eight votes against and thirty-four abstentions, the debate ended in a draw.