As the smoking ban comes into force in England it is an apposite time to talk about what effective drug regulation is and what it is not.
It is a common misconception that those who support the legalisation of drugs are against any kind of drug control. This is why legalisation/regulation is often – wrongly - referred to as liberalisation or relaxation of the drug laws.
In fact, apart from the most libertarian of libertarians, most of those in the reform movement actually support more control, not less. Bear in mind that it is prohibition that has abrogated all control of the drug market to organised criminals and unregulated dealers.
So, just for the record Transform supports the ban on smoking in enclosed public places, partly because of the health issues, but crucially because smoking is anti-social. In essence smoking inflicts smokers’ drug use on non-users, and to that extent it is irresponsible drug use. The issue isn’t nicotine use that is the problem, it is the route of administration. This is not an affront to civil liberties, rather it is legislation that stops users inflicting their drug use on others. If someone wants to use nicotine, they can: there are no plans afoot to ban the use of patches, inhalers, snuff, or Nicorette chewing gum in pubs (although, strangely, some oral tobacco products have been banned at EU level). Indeed if the Government had any sense they would have used this new legislation as a cue to promote the use of smokeless tobacco as a safer alternative to existing smokers (it is approximately 99% less risky). It is bizarre, indeed scandalous that smoking harm reduction has yet to bother UK policy makers, given that smoking is the most deadly of all drug habits by a vast margin: the WHO estimates smoking will kill a billion people in the next 30 years.
Returning to the subject of effective regulation, Transform also supports the raising of the age of tobacco sales from 16 to 18. We also call for ingredients lists to displayed on both alcohol and tobacco packaging, for health warnings to be displayed on alcohol products, and for a ban on alcohol advertising, starting with sponsorship of sports, music events and other advertising that directly reaches/targets children and young people.
We want better regulation not softer law. And for those politicians who claim that drug law reformers are soft, why have they not been calling for tobacco to be sold under licence, or for alcohol licensing laws to better enforced? Why have they repeatedly caved in to the alcohol and tobacco industry lobbying efforts to stall or water down any measures to strengthen regulation? How many publicans have been prosecuted for sale of alcohol to people who are drunk (illegal under the Licensing Act 2003)?
One of the problems we have in convincing the wider public to support reform is that governments of all shades have made such a pig’s ear of the regulation of currently legal drugs. The shorthand for which is the trite argument, ‘Why would we want to legalise more drugs? Look at alcohol and tobacco.’ The aim of any drug policy should be the optimum regulatory framework for minimising harms and maximising wellbeing. For legal drugs this can mean more and bettter regulation, whilst for illegal drugs, bringing them within a framework where they can be regulated at all.
When we began asking questions a few years ago as to why alcohol did not carry a health warning, we were told by the Department of Health (DH) that, ‘Alcohol drunk in moderate amounts in appropriate circumstances is not a danger to health’ - something that remains true for almost all drugs, legal or otherwise (see blog on alcohol policy). As for why ingredients are not displayed on tobacco packaging, the story from DH was that tobacco is so dangerous, additives are irrelevant. The Tobacco Manufacturers Association kindly sent us the booklet on the list of allowable additives in tobacco products. In this long list of noxious substances, was sugar, allowed at a level of up to 10% of the total in cigarettes – nice on your cornflakes, but do you want to smoke it? It goes against the central ethos of consumer rights that we are denied access to this information.
We must begin to put pressure on all governments and regulators to legislate so that legal drug dealers are obliged to conform to recognised codes of practice with regard to the sale of consumables, particularly in light of the fact that we are asking for new products to be added to the list of legally ‘regulated’ drugs.