Could People Who Use Illegal Drugs Be Trusted Not to Lose Control if the Law Was Changed?

04/16/2014 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2014

In the second of 3 little pieces drawn on data from the world's biggest drug survey (Global Drug Survey 2014) we share a little of what we found out when we asked almost 80,000 people how changes in drug laws would affect them? While not representative of drug users more widely the findings are enlightening.

First off laws don't control people. Many people break the law. But smart laws can encourage people to make decisions that are good for them. And governments are often accused that it is just this this sort of paternalism that is the driving force behind what many call the "failed war on drugs." Illegal drugs are illegal because they are harmful and international criminalization of drug users is there to protect communities and individuals for their own good. Well that has been the dominant narrative for decades. As evidence mounts and coherent arguments call for a revision of existing drug laws, GDS2014 posed a few hypothetical questions to people who had used illegal drugs in the last 12 months to assess what the impact of reduced penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs might be on their level of drug use and related behaviours.

With nearly 80,000 responses from around the world GDS2014 is the biggest study of drug use trends ever. While advocates of drug law reform argue persuasively that a drug market free from criminalization would reduce individual and wider societal harms there is also the very real possibility that such changes, especially a regulated market, might be associated with an increase in drug use consequent upon easier access and wider availability. One particular concern is that this would not only lead to increased levels of drug use by those already using illicit drugs but would result in increased "recruitment" of drug naïve people (especially younger people) who would otherwise not try drugs. On a population basis any change in drug laws that led to an increase in the numbers of drug users, would not be popular politically and would not be supported by many advocates for public health. This is made on the reasonable assumption that the more people who use drugs, the more drug users with problems there will be. Actually this might not be the case -- what you might end up with is a larger number of people who use drugs but with vast majority not experiencing any real harm at all and a very small number with very significant problems (as we do now, but maybe more effectively supported.

Anyway we have some evidence so let's not speculate, let's instead look at the data and see what GDS2014 told us about changes in how drug laws might impact on people' use of drugs. We posed 5 different scenarios, the results of which are published with our media partners across the world this week. Here I will provide a global overview of what the impact would be of just two of these policy scenarios on both people who currently use illicit drug and those who do not.

The first scenario we posed was that possession of small amounts of a drug resulted in no penalty whatsoever. Of about 55,000 last year drug users, 42 percent reported that would be more likely to disclose their drug use to their use to family and friends with 35 percent indicating they would be more likely to seek advice/help regarding their use, with only 10 percent indicating that they might use more drugs or a wider range of drugs. Among the 25,000 or so other respondents who had not used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months, only about 7 percent indicated they might use more drugs. The other scenario which I will briefly mention was one where drugs of known purity and quality were available from government controlled outlets. In this scenario 45 percent of current illicit drug users reported that would be more likely to disclose their drug use to their use to family and friends with 37 percent indicating they would be more likely to seek advice/help regarding their use. 15 percent said they might use more drugs, with 13 percent reporting they might try a wider range of drugs. 7 percent of current non-users indicated they might use more drugs.

What does this tell us? I think it says that current drug laws promote stigma and can in of themselves be barriers to help seeking. Aside from criminalization, it would seem that current drug laws could potentially make drug use more harmful to the individual by removing them from those who they are closest to and perhaps best placed to help and moderate their use. There are clearly huge difference between what someone says they will do and what they will actually do. But the current study is a start and GDS will track the responses to these questions over the coming years.

The results also highlight the obvious fact that people are impacted upon polices differently. So what to do? Well Colorado and Washington State are natural experiments as are countries like Portugal. Watching and measuring what happens in these diverse cultures will provide even stronger data for policy makers to consider whether changes are needed and if so whether baby steps are taken first. Either way those in power should feel confident that most people, most of the time will choose things in their lives that makes sense to them and those they care for. When policy matches this 'common' sense we will have got somewhere.