Drugs and the Law – Criminalisation

This topic examines the case for the way most legal systems currently deal with the problem of drugs. Ireland, England, the USA and most other common law jurisdiction view suppliers and users as criminals. This attitude towards combatting the problem of drugs led to the War on Drugs. The criminalization of all involved with drugs has evolved over the years to create a violent war in central America for control of illegal smuggling routes. The criminalization of drug use has also done little to help those suffering from addiction as they are unable to access help which only makes the problem worse.

Drugs (crack and heroin) became huge problems in America through the 20th century, leading to presidents of that era introducing incredibly harsh penalties for drug possession and distribution. Governments and states in the Americas realised that the real issue was with the cartels on the southern border of the US where these drugs were being smuggled in and so they launched an offensive on the cartels creating an unofficial war which only exacerbated the problem and ruined several countries in the process. Many progressive politicians and states are now criticizing the continuation of the war on drugs as it has obviously failed.

The War on Drugs has been well and truly lost and it cannot be denied. While the US has begun to loosen its hold on cannabis, much of the western world still views drugs as a blanket issue and acts with according force on all users. I believe it is time to at least trial a new approach as discussed in the next part of this topic. While it has always been apparent to me that the War on Drugs is futile and criminalising addicts is inhumane, studying drugs and the law from a sociological perspective has really highlighted the negative effects short-sighted and aggressive law making can have.

The Portuguese are a good case study for the argument for decriminalizing drugs. They had a hug problem in the late 20th Century, peaking at around 1% of the ten million strong population suffering from heroin addiction. They initially tried the criminalization and penalize approach, but in 2001 the PM adopted then idea that heroin abuse was a public health issue and addicts were to be treated as sick, not criminals. This approach has seen a steep fall in drug abuse, especially among young people and the fears of people who thought possession and demand would sky-rocket have not materialized.

There are many scholars, theorists and legislators on both sides of the criminalization/legalization debate. Here in Ireland, Charlton advocates prohibition-style laws around drug use and asserts that “soft” drugs are gateway drugs and should so be policed the same as harder substances. His suggestion of forced cold turkey as a treatment is in direct contrast to Tim Murphy’s proposed approach as he argues both prohibition and medicalization will fail, instead arguing for rehab, counseling and short-term low dose supply to heroin addicts in order to wean them off.

Both sides of this argument provide compelling reasons for our support. It is now understood that heroin addicts are deeply ill individuals and the criminalization of their situation is effectively a death sentence is it lands them in easy reach of suppliers in prison and prevents them seeking employment to get back on their feet. However, I struggle to come to terms with the supervised supply of drugs to addicts where they cannot be followed up on after, such as the consumption rooms in the Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries. The balance must lie somewhere in between the two, not whole-scale legalisation or criminalization, but the continued criminalization of supply and a supervised-to-sobriety approach to weaning addicts off heroin.

I found studying sociology of law to be both interesting and thought-provoking. It is commonplace to consider the potential effects of proposed legislation, but it was refreshing to think about the events, academics and theorists who propel society towards these changes. While the word progressive is used a lot these days to describe liberal policymakers, it is clear from these topics that the very objective of society is progression. Without constant criticism, reassessment and adaptation of the law society cannot progress or close in on the goal of truly just and fair law, applicable and acceptable to all in society.

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