george allanLegalisation, decriminalisation, drug law reform – what do we mean, asks George Allan

How to address the ‘drug problem’ continues to divide the world. Hardline prohibition remains the choice for many countries but others are adopting more liberal models. While possession of more than 200g of cannabis in Malaysia carries a mandatory death sentence, Uruguay and parts of the USA have effectively legalised weed. Portugal’s decriminalisation paradigm is viewed by many as a model with demonstrable public health benefits. UK politicians remain wedded to ‘pragmatic prohibition’ – treatment and harm reduction wrapped up in a restrictive legal framework. The words ‘legalisation’ and ‘decriminalisation’ are banded about but, like ‘recovery’, they mean different things to different people.

Transform’s After the war on drugs: blueprint for regulation (2009), by Stephen Rolles, aims to clear the mists by exploring the options. Transform, as an organisation, is not a neutral commentator; its purpose is to campaign for changes in the UK’s drug laws. However, the book is no heavy-handed polemic. Rolles presents three options: the prohibition/criminalisation model (the UK’s position); the regulated market; and the free-market legalisation model. While arguing that the first of these has proved counterproductive and created unintended harms, he vigorously rejects the idea of an open market, branding this as downright dangerous. He notes that the spectre of such a free-for-all is often used by prohibitionists as justification for shoring up the status quo.

Rolles advocates regulation, with different approaches for different substances based on risk. He explores all the variables: the market versus state control; production; quality; licensing; availability; advertising and sales; pricing; packaging; child-proofing; purchaser/user issues. Alcohol and tobacco are thrown into the mix in terms of problems regarding their current regulation and in respect of lessons learned which could be applied to the control of other drugs. The book ends by describing potential frameworks for regulating different substances.

Rolles paints no starry-eyed vision of a problem-free future under a changed model. As he says, ‘Prohibition cannot produce a drug-free world; regulatory models cannot produce a harm-free world.’ The great value of this book is to invite the reader to consider the potential benefits and costs of different methods of regulation. It is a challenge to one’s assumptions.

The book can be downloaded from Transform’s website or it can be purchased in hard copy (

George Allan is chair of the Scottish Drugs Forum. He is the author of Working with substance users: a guide to effective interventions (2014; Palgrave)