Harm minimisation or endorsing addiction?

By Drew Lindon

Continuing our theme about slippery slope objections, debate about drug policy is crowded with these kind of arguments. It’s fair to say that the slippery slope argument is more often levelled at advocates for legalisation or decriminalisation of particular drugs, rather than against those who would tighten laws, but it can cut both ways.

This is a fascinating area, and one in which the same arguments from every side often reappear time after time, but applied to new drugs or changed circumstances. In the UK, the emergence of ‘legal highs’ amongst a range of varied synthetic drugs have presented huge challenges around health and law enforcement. The varied approaches taken by different jurisdictions also muddy the waters. For instance, in recent years Portugal has essentially decriminalised drug possession while the traditionally liberal Netherlands has tightened restrictions. Meanwhile across the pond, a number of US states have legalised cannabis despite this being illegal under federal law.

While many charities who work on addiction, treatment or criminal justice issues around drugs do not have a specific position on legalisation or decriminalisation, there are those that do. Release and Transform both advocate slightly different forms of decriminalisation or legalisation for drugs which are currently illegal. Positions like these will often attract slippery slope objections – if you legalise one drug, others will next be legalised; if you decriminalise drugs, you encourage their use – which generally lead to the conclusion that the legal changes will create far greater social harm and moral decay.

What I’m most interested in is the way these organisations and others have framed their argument. More and more I see the principle approach as about harm minimisation; in short, the war on drugs isn’t working and creates more harm overall to society, as well as drug users themselves, than the alternative of a regulated, legal drug market. You can see examples of the harm minismisation approach taken in some countries by health services and charities offering needle exchanges or ‘shooting galleries’ for intravenous drug users to inject with clean materials and environments. The thinking here is if the organisations can prevent people from worsening their health by sharing potentially infected materials, we can prevent more people from early death and long-term illness such as HIV/AIDS. Also, having the people using drugs in a health environment provides an opportunity to offer other services, information and a push to help them out of addiction.

Personally, I’m genuinely conflicted on what the right approach is, given the evident risks and harms either way when potentially dangerous drugs are either illegal or legal, but I find harm minimisation an interesting approach to quell the counter arguments.

Join us at our next event to discuss avoiding ‘slippery slope’ style objections when campaigning.

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