Should we legalise all drugs? If you asked your friends and family this question it might invoke an emotive response, one of fear and trepidation. But what if we’re all in some degree of agreement but we just don’t realise it?

In his book, Legalizing Drugs: The Key to Ending the War, Steve Rolles, author and Senior Policy Analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, manages to veer away from a polarising debate and lays out what reform could actually mean. There are now almost 100 countries across the globe making use of ‘harm reduction’ interventions, a practice that turns away from the more historical crime and punishment model for drugs. In addition, 25 countries have also ended criminalisation of cannabis use. In his book, Rolles draws upon evidence gathered from these examples to ask “Why has the war on drugs proved so resilient?”


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Like any good book, Rolles starts at the beginning. For over a hundred years we have, by default, ‘banned’ drugs – meaning that production, trafficking and possession comes with heavy criminal penalties. At first glance this may seem like a sensible action, but what if this now archaic policy was due for a refresh, an overhaul with evidence-based critical thinking shaping a new policy?

We must first ask: how did we end up at a place of drug prohibition and criminal penalties? The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 is a framework which still governs our international drug policies to this very day and Rolles notes that the language used is undoubtedly akin to a moral crusade. The following is taken from the preamble:

  • Recognising that addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and fraught with social and economic danger to mankind
  • Conscious of their duty to prevent and combat this evil 

It’s no wonder that our policies have been based on a moral paradigm and have been lacking in evidence since this 1961 UN Single Convention.

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, steve rolles

So what’s gone wrong? If we’re to forge a new route ahead then we must look at where we’ve been, and Rolles does so with full diligence. It’s not at all controversial to say that our current approach to drugs, based on historical models, has utterly failed in protecting individuals and society. Far from creating the drug-free world that it set out to achieve, the UN recognises through its 2015 world drug report that approximately 247 million people use drugs each year worldwide with an annual market turnover of around $320 billion.

Rolles notes in his book that “the war on drugs is a staggering failure, even on its own terms”. A stage further from punitive models and we also have to look at how the UN has still failed to address the illegal but ongoing use of the death penalty for drug offences. For example, in 2003 the Thai government launched a crackdown on drugs which saw over 2,800 people killed in the first three months. This also reflects the most recent example of extrajudicial killings with the Philippines ending the lives of over 7,000 of its own citizens all in the frame of drug control. 

Rolles also takes a look at the more shrouded aspects of our international drug consensus. Russia has been consistently reluctant to act on their growing health problems – one third of their 1.8 million injecting drug users have been infected with HIV, whereas in countries with harm reduction practices, meaning needle exchange programs, and even safe injecting facilities, HIV rates are on average below five per cent. 

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There really are countless ways in which our drug policies have been harming our collective health, but Steve Rolles sets about finding solutions which are based on evidence. 

There is a brighter future. With a keen interest to explain what ‘legalisation’ actually means, Rolles manages to assert that we can indeed start from a clean slate. The regulation of drugs will have different and nuanced models with many factors taken into consideration. With cannabis as the first example, we now have existing models to look upon.

The traditional Dutch coffee shop model allowed patrons to purchase and consume cannabis in licensed premises – the first to break away from a prohibition. With a mix of age restrictions, advertising bans, controls on the number of locations and outlets, as Rolles points out, the Netherlands has cannabis use comparable with neighbouring countries, indicating that a point of legal sale does not lead to an increase use. This is the overriding point of regulation; we’re able to assert many basic controls in the pursuit of public health.

Virgin Unite, drug policy reform, steve rolles

At the other end of the scale, opioid use has increasingly become a concern with the UK and North America both facing an overdose crisis. Rolles makes the distinction that 97 countries, as of 2015, have formal harm reduction policies – and it’s the case that no formal UN amendment is needed to implement these changes. Heroin assisted treatment (HAT) will be an increasing conversation across the world as our death toll tragically grows. It’s always worth noting that no one has ever fatally overdosed in a safe injecting environment – this is in stark contrast to the estimated 2,677 registered opioid-related deaths in the UK in 2015.

Steve Rolles’ book, Legalizing Drugs: The Key to Ending the War is not just a book to read, but it’s also a tool to help start a conversation and help build a dialogue. So the next time you find yourself in conversation about drugs or need to reach for more information on why we need drug law reform, then look no further. The key to ending the war on drugs is knowledge, evidence, and understanding. 

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