If Drugs Were Legalised, How Should They Be Regulated?


There are many arguments in favour of the legalisation of drugs, including, but not limited to: eradicating drug-related violence, preventing the adulteration of drugs, preserving our personal freedom, saving government expenses used to fight a ‘war on drugs’, freeing up police time and prison space, and generating revenue through the taxation of drugs. But, while there are those who champion liberty, and policies based on harm reduction, it is not entirely clear what a system of legalisation would look like.

If drugs were legalised, how would they be regulated? Would all drugs be sold in the same way as alcohol and tobacco? A libertarian might believe that drugs should be available in a free market, but should there still not be some restrictions on their sale and purchase for the sake of minimizing risk? I think that a sensible system of legalisation can be set up; one which is committed to the availability of drugs through supply and demand, unhindered by government intervention, but which also aims to minimize harm.

An argument for legalisation does not necessarily mean that all drugs should be easily accessible, without any restrictions put in place. Granted, if drugs carried no negative repercussions with their use, then perhaps restrictions would not be necessary, and even children could use them. However, since this is not the case, drugs should be sold in a similar way (although different in some respects as well) to how alcohol and tobacco are sold. The writer Christopher Snowdon, in The Art of Suppression, argues that the main problem with prohibition it is means that drugs cannot be regulated. If drugs were legal, then their sale could be restricted to those who are of a mature age. Minors would be banned from purchasing them.

Christopher Snowdon argues that if drugs were legalised, their sale should be restricted to adults, in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are.
Christopher Snowdon argues that if drugs were legalised, their sale should be restricted to adults, in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are.

A worrying aspect of prohibition is that illegal drugs are easily available to minors. Drug dealers are under no regulations to only sell to those who are mature enough to use drugs – they can deal near schools and parks, and will sell to anyone so long as they get paid. They do not care if their users become addicted, they do not care if are selling drugs with harmful, adulterated chemicals in them, and it is of no consequence to them if someone dies from using their product. Proper regulation would entail drugs being sold on licensed premises, preferably away from schools and playgrounds, and with a strict adherence to an age limit (whether this age limit should be 18 is up for debate).

Harm would be minimized since if the owner of these premises broke the rules, such as selling to minors, then they would be penalised for it. J.S. Mill argued in On Liberty that if the owners of thee shops should be withdrawn if they sell their products irresponsibly. There would therefore be an obvious incentive not to sell their products to minors. The famous economist Milton Friedman also supported the rights of adults to use drugs, but said children must be prohibited from using them. Children cannot make rational choices the way in which adults do, so it is imperative to prevent them from accessing harmful legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, and especially even more addictive drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.

In his paper, Four Points About Drug Decriminalization, Douglas Husak imagines an even more effective way to prevent drug-related harm through regulation. He imagines a scenario in which the owners of shops would have to pay the costs of harm that the buyer causes to themselves and to others. The advantage of this proposal is that it means shop owners will have an even greater incentive to make their products as safe as possible – they would not want to cause any detriment to their business, their reputation, or to their profits.

Furthermore, in much the same way that cigarette packets and alcoholic beverages have warning labels on them, the same should apply with other drugs. Both the potential and actual harms of the product should be advertised. For example, in the Netherlands, where ‘psychedelic mushrooms’ can be purchased, there are clear warnings on the packet. There are suggestions as to what dose to consume based on how strong you want the effects to be. There are also warnings that people who have a psychological issues or a history of mental illness should not be taking them. This action can prevent people from harming themselves, without the government needing to regulate the market. As Mill puts it, “…labelling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character may be enforced without violation of liberty”.

'Magic mushroom' products sold in Amsterdam have warning labels on them. This could apply to all drugs in a system of legalisation.
‘Magic mushroom’ products sold in Amsterdam have warning labels on them. This could apply to all drugs in a system of legalisation.

In terms of how drugs would be sold, Christopher Snowdon pictures cannabis being sold in much the same way that it is sold in Holland or in certain states in the US. Cannabis could be bought in a ‘coffee shop’, ‘dispensary’ or ‘head shop’ and there would be the relevant information on the effects of different strains of cannabis, the ideal way to consume it (smoked, eaten, vaporised, drunk – yes California has cannabis-infused beverages!). Christopher also imagines that ‘club drugs’  such as MDMA could be purchased in licensed clubs, and that opium could be legally smoked in licensed bars, perhaps with a return to the classic opium dens found 19th Century London. Psychedelic drugs, such as magic mushrooms, could be sold in the UK as they are in Holland, with the seller able to give you useful advice on the product.


  1. Thanks for the link to this article and a couple of others.

    My thoughts on the proposed arguments for legalisation:

    Eradicating drug related violence – Really? Legalisation of drugs is no guarantee that drug related violence would be eradicated, or even lowered. In 2011/12 over 40% of violent crimes were related to alcohol (ONS 2012), and alcohol is legal.

    Preventing the adulteration of drugs – Unfortunately, even though regulated products are legally available in this country, counterfeit alcohol and tobacco products are still available illegally, and often cause even more harm than the legalised version. Due to the skills of fraudulent manufacturers of these counterfeit goods, many people cannot tell the difference between the regulated and non-regulated versions, and therefore are unable to make an informed decision based on risk. HM Revenue and Customs estimated that in 2009/10 counterfeit alcohol could have accounted for up to 11% of the total market share.

    Preserving our personal freedom – I absolutely believe in freedom of choice, providing people are facilitated in making an informed decision. However, rightly or wrongly, there is a general public perception that the level of legislation around a substance has a direct correlation to its risk to health. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times people have said to me they use cannabis but wouldn’t use heroin ‘because they’re not stupid’. When you discuss this with them further, they explain that cannabis is a ‘soft’ drug, because it is not class A. This is obviously only anecdotal, based on my own experiences of talking to drug users, but it is quite telling.
    The freedom of choice act could be applied to almost all the other arguments for legalisation, to turn them on their head – if you want to choose to break the law, you can. If you want to choose to take the risk of using an unregulated substance, you can, etc. Yes, you may be penalised with fines or even incarceration, but if you’re choosing to risk your health and possibly even your life, what difference does the possibility of prison time make?

    Saving government expenses and freeing up police time – It would be a costly and time consuming venture indeed to legalise and regulate drugs, just as it is still costly regulating alcohol and tobacco now. Some may argue that taxation would generate revenue – whilst this may be true, it would need to be balanced against the increased costs to both the public purse and society.
    Most drug use changes a person’s behaviour, whether it be through altering their perceptions or removing inhibitions – one only needs to spend time in a city centre on a Friday night to see similar effects due to alcohol intoxication and how they effect society. Or better still, pop down to your local A&E and have a think about what kind of strain would be added to an already over stressed service if drugs were as freely available as alcohol. And don’t think the costs would be off set by less need for policing, any time spent in an A&E department will illustrate that police officers are a regular feature there too, dealing with drunk patients who are either already under arrest or are abusing NHS staff. Many drunk patients wouldn’t dream of hurling physical and verbal abuse at nurses and doctors if they weren’t under the influence.

    And that is only considering the short term effects. After visiting A&E, take a look at the number of inpatients on hospital wards/people requiring daily visits in the community/GP appointments etc who are requiring healthcare interventions as the direct result of lifestyle choices including alcohol and or tobacco use, not to mention dietary choices. Both physical and mental health issues would increase if drugs were legalised. The long term health effects are still not fully understood, and early reports from places like Colorado should be treated with caution. Let us not forget that up until the 1950s doctors actually endorsed the use of tobacco… time has made us much wiser to the long term dangers.

    I remember a relative once saying to me they thought they would quite like to try cannabis, but they wouldn’t know how to get it. I pointed out that if they really wanted to find some I was sure they could, but they replied that in reality they would be far too frightened of getting caught breaking the law. I appreciate that sadly this would not be enough to stop most people, but at least it goes some way to reducing the number of people willing to try drugs.

    I don’t by any means claim that drugs being illegal means they are eradicated, or that the problems associated with drug use do not exist. But I do genuinely believe that resources should be focused on education, support and enforcement rather than wasted on legalisation and regulation of known dangerous substances.

  2. it is good to see people actually using their brains for once, you don’t see much of that these days. I agree with everything in the article.


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