British Columbia is currently enrolled in a three-year experiment that decriminalises the possession and use of hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, as long as the dosage does not exceed 2.5g. Decriminalisation does not legalise these drugs, but it does present opportunities to counter the problem of drug use by other means. Rather than label all users as criminals, the aim is to get people the help they need sooner rather than later. However, such policies bring deeper questions to mind in the Great Drugs Debate, for one: who will benefit the most from them?

Drug Users Are Not All Equal

We can’t deny that depictions of rich and middle-class drug users are far more sympathetic than those of their poorer counterparts. While portrayals of drug taking in Shameless are anything but, those in Absolutely Fabulous are just that. Readers forgive the educated Sherlock Holmes for needing a sufficient level of cocaine to function. It is accepted as one of his quirks and a small price to pay for his upholding of the law. Serving any such purpose is something we could never expect from the heroin addicts in Trainspotting, precisely because their underprivileged lifestyle is something no sane viewer could ever aspire to. In short, drug use in no way disadvantages a character who has enough disposable income or funds.

It’s a double standard that’s all too real outside of fiction. The drug-inspired music of now-wealthy musicians, as well as their character creations (think ‘Major Tom’s a junkie’), are smiled upon with dreamy endearment, while homeless people report being scorned precisely because they are assumed to be users. By most indicators, full legalisation of recreational drugs would illuminate all manner of inequalities embedded in the following correlation: drug habits work against you the poorer you are.

It has never been easier to call out structural inequality. The petition against the so-called ‘Tampon Tax’ was started using a petition. Literally, anyone with access to a computer can start a movement that challenges unfairness, with many critics labelling it typical of the ‘entitled Millennial’ archetype. ‘Food Justice’. ‘Menstrual Equity’. ‘Period poverty’. ‘Food Liberation.’ These are all buzzwords used in the (justified) narratives around quality and access to resources. If recreational drugs were to become fully legal, we would open several cans of worms and face the exact same arguments applied generally to narcotic use.

The famous (I think) picture of the protest sign reading: ‘SHOWERS FOR THEM TIN BATHS FOR US’ that adorns Peter Shapely’s book The Politics of Housing would mutate to, ‘80% PURE COKE FOR THEM, TRANQ FOR US’ as the politics of drug use arise. Questions around equality of drug choice, purity and accessibility would inevitably be asked.

Over the past thirteen years of austerity, petitions have been launched to save certain bus routes because patients rely on them to access doctor and hospital appointments. Something similar would ensue if narcotics are legalised. Those with less disposable income would be more reliant on public transport to obtain their hits. Bus route cuts would be seen as thwarting the right to drugs if users cannot afford a car — something that’s not a problem for their Porsche-driving counterparts. And this is just the tip of the inequality iceberg.

Priced Out of Quality Drugs

Studies reveal that drug prices do not increase with purity. There is no direct or logical correlation when other factors are at play. Notably, rare cocaine with a purity of 80% and 90% is known to carry severe health risks including ‘long-term effects on the liver.’ Put into context and with the UK’s health service in mind, a long-term health effect requiring ongoing care is better addressed without the headache of long waiting lists and times typical of the NHS. This is just one long-term health effect that the wealthy and better-off would be more able to deal with. The ability to afford private health care to minimise the risks of drug use illuminates how legalisation could impact social inequality.

In the United States, there has been a trend for mixing a particular opioid, fentanyl, with a horse tranquillizer called xylazine aka ‘Tranq’ with horrific effects. Weakening the fentanyl dose by adulteration not only reduces costs and makes it more accessible; it also ‘caus[es] wounds so severe that some result in amputation.’

Adulterated fentanyl produced ‘on the cheap’ is a case in point. Those with less disposable incomes are usually the primary recipients of the negative effects of (cheap) drugs. One could argue that legalisation would circumvent such risks. But fake, cheap and poor-quality versions of all manner of legal products pervade the markets already. There is a good chance that misinformation about the quality and dosage of cheaper, illegitimate, brands would prevail and remove any positives of the legalisation. Poorer users would be left facing the same identical risks posed by cheaper and potentially more harmful substances.

In theory, cheaper drugs are an inevitable outcome of legalisation. This could even be seen as a positive. However, the addition of taxation means that any benefits will primarily be felt by the wealthy while the poor get priced out of the regulated drugs market from the word ‘Go’. Unable to benefit from the legalisation of drugs, those that cannot afford to pay will once again be forced to turn to illegal and more dangerous alternatives.

Legalising drugs is not the main problem here. The real issue is that only a small fraction of the population will benefit: those with money. This is an undeniable sociological problem. Legalisation, as it currently stands, brings us back to square one and achieves very little for the underprivileged. This is a point we cannot underscore enough.

Rethinking Legalisation

The negative impact of normalised drug use on the disadvantaged would be significant. It’s no secret that ‘problematic use’ of illegal drugs is ‘more common among poorer people,’ making them ‘seven times more likely to be homeless.’ As well as this, poverty is an identified ‘risk factor’ for opioid overdoses and unemployment is a further risk factor for ‘fatal heroin overdoses.’ From this, we can judge the potential side effects of a policy that would give an additional advantage to the already advantaged since we have similar parallels in other areas such as education, housing and healthcare.

The legalisation of recreational drugs inevitably also raises questions of ‘motivation equality’ and ‘drug-taking motivation poverty.’ Class A drugs are often taken in ‘social situations’ which is thought to be the reason behind a 40 per cent decrease in their use during Covid times. At least 80 per cent reported ‘using ecstasy and cocaine less often’ because of ‘fewer occasions’ where they could use drugs. Lifestyle and drug-taking are not mutually exclusive events. Those in employment arguably expose themselves to the risks of Class A drugs less often than poorer, unemployed people: the number of hours spent in work reduces the time available for socialising and partaking.

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, made the case for drug legalisation on Question Time while also saying that he ‘[didnt] want [his] drugs taxed’ (Ummm … isn’t that a factor of legalisation? Strong stuff he’s on.) The irony is that the Sex Pistols used the Jamie Reid image of ‘Nowhere Buses.’ This is a visual representation of the Pistol’s warnings that we are ‘Pretty Vacant’ and have ‘no future’ — precisely what drug legalisation would sentence most people to if they are living in poverty.

Legalising recreational drugs won’t dissolve the argument that only the wealthy and better-off get away with taking them; it will only cause it to snowball. The already disadvantaged are more likely to encounter problematic drug use due to inequality of opportunity and living standards — problems that need addressing outside of drug legalisation. However, questions directly related to drug legalisation — differences in drug quality, differing levels of substance access, etc. — would eat up much of Parliament’s time. We need to ask ourselves whether we have this time and whether it would be a justified use of taxpayers’ money. These are valid considerations in the Great Drugs Debate.

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