STRIVE X Cainz debate: Decriminalising all drugs is an effective public health policy

May 27, 2021
Editor(s): Emily Hartley
Writer(s): Melanie Suriarachchi, Vickram Mehtaanii

*The speakers in this article are competitive debaters, and therefore the views expressed may not necessarily represent their beliefs or the beliefs of the organisation they belong to.*

First Affirmative – Henry Sundram (Strive)

In recent years, there has been a significant movement to decriminalise all drug usage as a method of effectively advancing public health. We critically differentiate between drug legalisation, which involves government regulation of all drug markets and distribution, and drug decriminalisation, which centres on not prosecuting drug users whilst maintaining the illegality of drug manufacturing and selling. Policies of drug prohibition have failed as public health policies because they have largely failed to reduce drug consumption. By shifting the governmental lens on drug use from one of criminality to that of a health issue, public health outcomes will be improved.

Throughout history, forms of drug consumption have occurred in almost all societies whom “actively seek addictive drugs” for use in religion, medicine or recreation. Given the inherent tendency for drug consumption in societies, drug policies must reflect this reality to have meaningful public health outcomes. Drug prohibition has abjectly failed to reduce drug usage within societies and therefore failed as a public health policy. This failure may be attributed to the disjunct between prohibition’s idealistic aims of total drug elimination and the social realities of ever-present drug usage. Given that demand for drugs will always exist, parallel markets which supply and distribute illicit drugs will also exist, regardless of the efforts of law enforcement which US$100 billion per annum is expended on globally. The motivations behind drug prohibition is to “protect the health and well-being” of citizens. However, in Australia, there was a 55-fold increase in the number of heroin overdoses between 1964 and 1997 after the federal government prohibited the drug, reinforcing the ineffectiveness of prohibition at reducing drug use as a public health outcome.

Given the failures of drug prohibition, we logically turn to supporting the decriminalisation of all drugs as an effective alternative policy for advancing public health. Decriminalisation policies recognise the realities of drug consumption in societies and shift their focus from punitively prosecuting drug users to minimizing drugs’ potential harm. Decriminalisation destigmatises drug addiction as family members and friends are less likely to negatively judge drug users and are more willing to support and assist in their recovery because the user’s actions are no longer criminal. Accompanying this social destigmatisation, not prosecuting drug users enables them to seek medical assistance more openly for addictions without fear of repercussion. This would likely reduce demand for illicit drugs, increasing public health outcomes as dependents recover. In contrast, prohibitive-drug policies, which issue criminal records to drug users, often condemn them to further economic and health deprivation. The possession of a criminal record significantly reduces one’s employment opportunities, increasing the likelihood of poverty which is closely associated with poorer health through increased drug use, reduced access to healthcare services and poorer-quality food.

Ultimately, the irreconcilable failures of drug prohibition as a public health policy leads us to the alternative of total decriminalisation of drugs which will advance public health by encouraging more drug users to seek treatment.

First Negative – Melanie Suriarachchi (Cainz)

The rising movement to decriminalise all drug use as a means of drastically improving public health outcomes is best described as idealistic. In order for decriminalisation to be a viable option to address concerns relating to drug use, there are many obstacles that need to be addressed first, which in a perfect world may be easy to address, however, can prove to be tricky in modern day societies. Whilst we understand that drug prohibition may not be the most robust measure to further public health outcomes relating to substance related issues, it provides a certain assurance as a ‘tried and true’ system to control addiction related issues within society.

The affirmative team asserts given the inherent tendency to consume drugs by those ‘actively seek addictive drugs’, drug policies should reflect this reality in order to further health outcomes relating to substance use. Hence, taking into consideration the ‘inherent tendency’ of some individuals to consume drugs, it may be considered a disservice to them to decriminalise drugs, as it provides them greater access to the substances that they may be wanting to avoid, especially in circumstances of rehabilitation. By decriminalising all drugs, it puts those who are going through a rehabilitative phase in great harm as they may not be able to control the environments they encounter, which could possibly lead to relapse and further trauma.

Moreover, to counter the argument addressing the ‘abject failure’ of drug decriminalisation, a 2001 Australian study of 18–29-year-old individuals by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research demonstrates that prohibition did work to deter drug use. Of the subjects who had never used cannabis, 29% cited illegality as their reason for not using. 19% of those subjects who had stopped using cannabis stated that illegality of the substance was their reason for ceasing use. However, the most alarming statistic revealed that 91% of those currently using cannabis said that they would increase their usage if it was to be decriminalised.

Whilst decriminalisation may work to destigmatise drug addiction, the affirmative team fails to recognise those individuals who have biological predisposition towards drug addiction, making them more vulnerable to drug abuse. If there are measures such as legal prosecution are not in place, they probability that those individuals start to experiment with drugs is heightened, placing them in greater risk for continued substance abuse. When working to decriminalise all drugs, the health system needs to be prepared to handle the current drug addicts as well as the inundation of new addicts in order to provide fair access to the appropriate resources needed for those experiencing drug addiction, overdoses and withdrawals, as well as supporting family members and friends with a loved one who is suffering from an addiction.

Moreover, using basic economic theory, decriminalising all drugs will ultimately lead to a surge in the supply in drugs within the community, effectively leading to lower prices of such substances which may result in a greater temptation for individuals to experiment.

Fundamentally, whilst drug prohibition may not be the most efficacious system to improve health outcomes related to drug use, it is the system that many countries continue to utilise in order to address such issues. If public health outcomes relating to substance abuse were to be prioritised, the first measure to put in place would be greater access to support for addicts and the family and friends of addicts relating to both physical and mental health. It is foolish to believe decriminalisation would improve health outcomes without placing the ‘middle measures’ in place and trialling those initiatives first.

Second Affirmative – Ben Smyth (Strive)

The negative team suggests that decriminalizing all drugs will give individuals who “inherently” want to consume drugs greater access to substances they may want to avoid. However, drug use per se is not problematic to public health, but drug dependency is problematic and leads to poorer health outcomes. Legal drugs such as alcohol and caffeine can provide benefits while posing minimal risk to health; it is when addiction develops that the risk of poor health outcomes increases and an intervention is required.

Moreover, the legalization of relatively dangerous drugs such as tobacco and alcohol seems a farce when considering the criminalization of relatively benign drugs such as cannabis. Instead of arbitrarily criminalizing some drugs, all drugs should be decriminalized.

The negative team goes on to argue that due to lack of legal disincentives in decriminalization, addiction-prone individuals may become more vulnerable to drug abuse. However, since decriminalizing all drugs, Portugal has seen reductions in problematic use and drug-related harms. Therefore, apart from merely reduced problematic use, the decriminalization of drugs will help reduce drug-related harms ostensibly due to better access to education and medical care.

The negative team states that due to economic theory, decriminalization will lead to a surge in drug supply. Despite an increase in illicit drug seizures by Australian police forces over the past decade, the availability of drugs has been largely unaffected. There is simply too much demand and too many suppliers for prohibition of drugs to have effects on the market. The prohibition of alcohol in the USA was built on the utopian ideology of a drugless state, but ultimately led to an increase in crime and no meaningful reduction in alcohol use.

The vast majority of individuals who use drugs (legal or otherwise) do so rationally, recreationally, and sensibly. Policies should focus on the minority of users who develop dependence disorders. The real disservice to addicts is not providing them the opportunity to rehabilitate without risk of prosecution. Imagine the difference in public health if all the money now spent on arresting people and judicial processes was instead provided to drug treatment and support services.

Second Negative – Vedanth Shah (Cainz)

The affirmative side have outlined that drug dependency is the core issue we are faced with, as it can cause health, financial and wellbeing issues. By legalising drugs, we are only providing the broader community with a gun and asking them not to shoot. If you take away the gun, they are deterred from shooting. This is the basis of decriminalising all drugs. If the community doesn’t have easy access to drugs, then it will deter most people from consuming potentially harmful and dangerous drugs. Initially the drugs may not be addicting in nature, but it opens up a gateway to harder, stronger drugs. Under the affirmative sides model, they suggest that decriminalised drugs will be safe and monitored, however, when people look for harder, stronger drugs after getting a feel for the “softer” drugs, they will face the downwards spiraling consequences from consumption of drugs. 

The affirmative side also brought up the example of Portugal decriminalising drugs, however this is only part true. Drugs are not freely available, nor can they be freely sold, instead the only difference in Portugal is that the offence for possession of a narcotic substance has been changed from a criminal to a civil offence, and under this legal framework citizens can still be fined for possession.

The relaxation of the law in Portugal may seem a minor change but had large significant impacts on Portugal’s economy and productivity. The relaxation of the law in 2011, resulted in a 1.7% fall in GDP in 2011, and a further 4.1% fall in GDP in 2012. This fall in GDP is no consequence, in fact many experts believe the laziness of citizens due to higher drug consumption, after the immediate relaxation of drug laws, resulted in a fall in labour productivity, and hurt the countries GDP.

By continuing with the current status quo, we avoid the large health, wellbeing and economic issues that may arise from the legalisation of drugs. Less people will have access to a potential self-destructing weapon, which by all means will keep the broader community safer and happier.

Third Affirmative – Sonia Truong (Strive)

The affirmative team would like to begin by reminding the negative team that the debate thus far has concerned decriminalisation, not legalisation, which may rectify any misconceptions from the negative team regarding Portugal’s current drug policy. In the context of decriminalisation as an effective public health policy, one of the negative team’s own sources states that “Portugal stands as a global leader of evidence-based policy grounded on the principle of harm reduction”. We agree with their source that the decriminalisation of drugs demonstrably improves health outcomes and results in reduced drug use, addiction, overdoses, and HIV infections. This contrasts with the baseless and unevidenced “gateway drug” assertions reminiscent of doomed-to-fail 1930’s prohibitionists.

We would also like to correct the negative team by clarifying that Portugal’s drug decriminalisation occurred in 2001, not 2011, and that the entire continent was in recession during 2011. Is the negative team claiming that the 2001 decriminalisation of drugs caused a recession in Greece with a near decade-long delay? It seems much more coherent to suggest that the Eurozone debt crisis which impacted the entire continent is more responsible for Portugese economic woes than harmful stereotypes regarding people who use drugs. Nevertheless, this is a non-sequitur that distracts from the significant public health gains resulting from this public health policy.

If the negative team truly wishes to address the risks posed to individuals vulnerable to drug misuse, they may like to consider the serious harms inflicted on these individuals under the current punitive system: the stigma of a criminal record, denial of employment and housing, and the trauma associated with arrest and incarceration, all of which are inextricably linked to poorer health outcomes. Compared with the approach of drug decriminalisation, which approach sounds more pragmatic and humane?

This public health policy does not lend itself to simplistic and shallow analogies of “giving someone a gun and asking them not to shoot.” The regime of drug prohibition undermines the efforts of individuals to seek treatment for their drug use, not only because of stigma associated with drug use but because of legitimate fear of criminalisation. How is the negative team proposing that people who use drugs seek help when they are at risk of prosecution for doing so? Rather than spending exorbitant sums of money on law enforcement and wilfully depriving people with health issues of the help they need, resources could be redirected to provide earlier intervention and appropriate treatment and medical services to people with drug use problems. In the interest of public health, drug decriminalisation is a step in the right direction—and one that is long-overdue.

Third Negative – Vickram Mehtaanii (Cainz)

The negative team is well aware of the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation and understands that the debate concerns decriminalisation of all drugs, which is why we stand firm with our views. Drug decriminalisation is not the answer and will never be, at least not in the interest of public health. We understand that so long an act is considered a crime, most people will tend to stay away from “committing the crime”. We do not understand why the affirmative team has drifted away from the main topic and given so much importance to Portugal’s economic woes. If the affirmative and negative team both want an effective public health policy where less people consume drugs, less people get addicted to drugs, and less people overdose on drugs, then it is necessary that the consumption is considered a crime, as it always has been. Importance needs to be given to prevention than thinking of the cure first.

We understand that it is necessary to protect the welfare of those vulnerable to drug misuse, however, we also understand that we need to look after the health of all and therefore, consumption of drugs needs to be considered a crime. Otherwise, drugs would be much more easily available, which would then lead to a lot more people consuming drugs who have so far chosen not to as it is considered a “crime”. The same people who have resisted the consumption of drugs would be keen to explore what it is like to consume drugs, if it would not be a crime anymore. It is basic common sense: more people consuming drugs would lead to higher chances of drug misuse, addiction, and overdose. This would have a significant impact on those around them, including their family and friends, who would be affected both mentally and physically by the abusers. Moreover, this would have an impact on the future offspring as well as they may have some kind of disability from birth. Furthermore, the larger number of people addicted to drugs would lead to a higher crime rate, as a lot of addicts would indulge in criminal activities to purchase drugs. Surely, those who really are worried about their criminal record, employment and housing, trauma associated with arrest and incarceration would choose to not consume drugs. The point stands, prevention is better than cure.

Obviously, a better policy needs to be brought in place where those individuals who would like to seek treatment for their drug use get proper help, instead of straight off being treated as criminals. However, decriminalisation of consumption of drugs is NOT the answer to that. The negative team understands that the “cure” side of the public health policy needs to be looked into, but remains firm on the “prevention” side. Therefore, in the interest of public health, the negative team holds ground for criminalising the consumption of all drugs.


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The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Emily Hartley

Hi everyone! My name is Emily and I am a current penultimate year student studying Bachelor of Commerce with majors in Finance and Economics. As a digest writer at CAINZ, I am able to tie together my childhood passion for writing and the qualitative and quantitative aspects of finance and economics. I am excited to deliver to you a range of articles throughout my time as a writer.

Melanie Suriarachchi
Vickram Mehtaanii