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Opinion: On the Legalisation of All Recreational Drugs

by | 14 September, 2018 | Article


By Matthew Diamond


Few, if any, would argue that the war on drugs has been anything but a disaster; however, many still argue that it can be won if we just try a little harder. They argue that the harms associated with the use of drugs can be counteracted through policing, criminal penalties and the removal of welfare for users, and that we simply need more of each.

Throughout this piece, my first contribution to the PPE Society Magazine, I will argue precisely the opposite, that we should legalise and regulate all recreational drugs.[1]

The basis of my argument is as follows:

  1. Drug use in our society has harms.
  2. All major harms of drug use in our society would be lessened (or removed entirely) through legalisation.
  3. If we can reduce or alleviate these harms, we should.
  4. We should legalise and regulate all recreational drugs.

For the purpose of this essay, the first and third premises (that drug use has harms and that harms should be reduced where possible) are assumed to be true and, though I’m happy to argue for these also (preferably after 10pm at the Reddo), the second premise (all major harms…) is what I will seek to prove throughout this essay. I also will not discuss the economic benefits of the industrialisation and taxation of the approximately $7b market for illicit substances, though I wish to note their existence.

First, we must understand what harms drugs cause. I see these harms falling into a few categories:

  1. Health (possible overdose, disease transmission, addiction etc.)
  2. Criminal penalties (jail time and other penalties)
  3. Criminal activity (theft, violence etc.)

Then we can begin to examine the ways legalisation can impact these harms.

1. Health

This category of harms is one that is mostly relevant to the user, though some, such as disease transmission, can also have severe impacts on the broader community. Through legalisation and regulation, we can significantly impact upon the transmission of diseases and number of overdoses while also helping addicts to seek professional medical help. The decriminalisation of drugs within Portugal has already had an incredible impact on both the incidences of fatal overdoses (~90 in 2008 to 40 in 2015) and the number of HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting, which fell from just under 400/year to 44/year over the same period. Legalisation (in contrast to decriminalisation) could impact on these metrics in even more significant ways.

Firstly, regulated substances would be both purer and more consistent in strength than those currently available. The purity would reduce the necessity of injection to reach the desired effect while the consistency would reduce the number of accidental overdoses. Currently, the most common overdose scenario consists of a heroin user unknowingly acquiring a pure substance and treating it as they would a lower purity dose.

Legalisation would also reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for these issues. This would provide users with better access to clean needles and encourage them to seek medical help both during emergencies and to overcome their addiction.

Finally, the benefit of a pure and reliable substance provided by a regulated market would reduce the harm currently done through misrepresentation of drugs by dealers; fentanyl and rat poison sold as heroin is a user’s ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

2. Criminal Penalties

If the next point is a shock to you, it may be worth reconsidering exactly what you’re doing reading this article. Simply, legalisation of a crime means less convictions for said crime. “I don’t care if a few less junkies go to jail” I hear you respond. Well you should, and I’ll tell you exactly why (ignoring the humanitarian reasons of sending someone to prison for what is often a victimless crime). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 79,070 offenders had a principal offence that was an illicit drug offence in 2014-15. Seventy-nine THOUSAND and seventy. Of these, approximately 6,155 spend time in prison. Furthermore, according to the Productivity Commission, it costs an average of $109,782.60 to send someone to prison in Queensland for just one year. Assuming an average sentence of at least one year (indeed, it is likely far longer), the direct cost is at least $600million; I’m sure we can all think of better ways to spend the money.

But, much like the receipts you find in your pockets the morning after a night out, the bill is a lot bigger than you first think. We can find further costs to the taxpayer within the increased likelihood of reoffending with other crimes, due to becoming less employable or through further association with criminals in prison. We also see a negative impact on our economy simply from fewer people participating within it; it can be hard to hold down a job while incarcerated.

Legalisation would decrease these costs by not incarcerating drug offenders (obviously), allowing them to participate in the economy, reducing the policing costs associated with drug offences and by destigmatising drug offences and increasing the chances of past offenders securing employment. This last point, paired with the decreased association with criminals in prison, means less reoffending which, in turn, means lower costs to the Australian taxpayer (yay!) and less crimes (double yay!).

3. Criminal Activity

According to the ABS there is a mark-up of approximately 83% on top of the production costs of drugs, largely owing to the high-risk factor of dealing in illegal products. Regulation and market forces would result in a better product for a lower price, and we need look only to post-prohibition America for proof here. Forcing criminal gangs and cartels out of the market will cause a significant reduction in crimes associated with drug trafficking and distribution, such as assault and murder. This lower cost is also less likely to encourage users to resort to revenue-seeking crimes such as theft.


In the interest of keeping this article as readable as possible I’ll end my analysis here. Overall, through the harm categories of health, criminal penalties and criminal activity I’ve demonstrated that drug legalisation only lessens the harms experienced by both users and society as a whole. Combining this premise back into the wider argument, I argue that we should proceed with the legalisation and regulation of all recreational drugs.


Matthew Diamond is a student from North QLD, the President of the UQ Politics, Philosophy and Economics Society and an avid bush-turkey enthusiast.

[1] Note: when I use the term ‘drug’ I am referring to mind-altering substances used recreationally.


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