A magistrate makes the case for legalising and regulating drugs

Flickr - Michael D Beckwith


This is a guest blog by Peter Nutting JP DL


Before I was appointed a magistrate in 1977 I knew very little about drugs, although I had smoked a joint on two or three occasions, without any noticeable effect, had stopped smoking a few years previously and I liked a drink. I joined the West London Division of Inner London mainly dealing with Kensington, Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush. My eyes were opened very quickly, as much of what we had to deal with was petty crime like shop lifting, stealing from cars, bag snatching and burglary, much of which was in the context of feeding a drug habit. The reasons why people acquired a drug habit were many but they included being abused as a child or teenager, misery after a bereavement, unemployment and stress in relationships.


There were then the dealers who were regarded as serious criminals. Hardly any of them were educated or appeared to offer much to an employer. Many also had a drug problem themselves. On the one hand there were the serious dealers who enjoyed a good lifestyle and on the other there were those who had a drug habit and could not pay their supplier. Often the dealer would encourage them to acquire customers of their own to feed their habit so the addict became a small time dealer.


Away from the Magistracy I was involved in a number of businesses. One of my fellow directors told me he had been asked to advise the government on the role of governments around the world in money laundering. Most of the money he would be looking at came from the illegal drugs trade where  the turnover in that business was much higher than the turnover in the Oil industry and was at least five times as profitable. He told me that the total quantity of drugs seized by the authorities each year is a declining proportion of the drugs produced world wide. Indeed the activities of police, military and enforcement agencies have the effect of keeping prices higher than they might be, encourages production and ensures good returns for importers, distributors and dealers. The war on drugs is failing and it may even be making things worse.


One of the most difficult things we had to do was decide what to do with addicts who had repeatedly committed crimes. To assist us the Probation Service provided a report. These demonstrated how often abuse of drugs started with abuse of alcohol. Many offenders would have liked to kick the habit but few places were available in Rehabilitation clinics. Difficulty in finding employment and peer pressure at home resulted in repeat offending.


Decriminalising cannabis, which is starting to happen in parts of the world is a beginning. There is evidence that continuous consumption of cannabis can cause Schizophrenia but also that it has medicinal benefits for certain conditions. My problem is that if the sale of cannabis is controlled and taxed as proposed in some States in the USA, but most drugs remain illegal then the dealers and suppliers will want to switch their customers to something else which is as addictive as possible so as to retain a customer.  


Not that many people die from taking drugs. They die from the effect of dirty needles, bad drugs or taking drugs which are much stronger than they are used to. There is no way to control the quality of an illegal substance supplied and sold by criminals. Purity is extremely variable and pollutants added can be dangerous. During Prohibition in America thousands of people died from drinking bad alcohol and it gave rise to gangsters like Al Capone and the Mafia who controlled the illegal trade, fought each other for the rights to sell alcohol in a given area and made great fortunes. The same people moved into betting when that was illegal and then took control of the trade in drugs. Gang warfare in our cities is largely based on the distribution rights for drugs in given areas.


I often ask myself why I can drink a bottle of spirits and smoke 50 cigarettes each day whilst I break the law if I smoke a joint to relax at a weekend or take amphetamines to improve my sex life. The cigarettes and alcohol are subject to quality control but are much more harmful than the recreational drugs which are not subject to any quality control. Young people who take something at a party or in a club are gambling with their health or life, but thousands do.

I am convinced we must stop this war. We must legalise ALL drugs. It is no use fiddling around at the edges. We have to put the suppliers and dealers out of business by allowing commercial but heavily regulated manufacture and supply of what the public wants and tax it moderately so there is no role for illegal supply.



Flickr - Daily Sunny


It has been estimated that more than 50% of the prison population are there for drugs related offenses. This includes dealers and suppliers, couriers and all those imprisoned for offences, which often include violence, committed in the course of feeding a drug habit.  The money saved could be spent on education and a hugely enhanced drug treatment programme. The tax raised could be appropriated to the NHS. The police would be freed to concentrate on violent crime and serious burglary.


Opponents will say total legalisation and availability would lead to greatly increased numbers of people addicted to drugs. I accept this might happen initially and some would be tempted to try what had been illegal. However anyone today who wants an illegal drug can find it very easily. Familiarity breeds contempt and one result could be drug taking becomes less “cool”. It is also easier to seek help when your habit is no longer illegal or you don’t have to steal to feed it.

Prejudice and ignorance are the greatest enemies of common sense. We must learn from history and the laws of economics that where there is demand there has to be supply.  Only total legalisation will put the dealers out of business as was demonstrated by the Repeal of Prohibition. Strict Regulation will be necessary to ensure quality and a great effort has to be put into education and rehabilitation.


Peter was educated at Eton College, has 3 years service with Irish Guards, and 2 1/2 years in Australia and Africa. Started in business as a stock broker, partner after 3 years, left to run a soft drinks business which was taken over so joined a merchant bank as director. Has been involved in numerous companies in UK and USA. In 1972 he became a member of Lloyd’s and in 1988 chaired the first group of 1000 Names who sued Lloyd’s and won £120 million compensation. He joined Council of Lloyd’s in 1990 and under new management I chaired the Lloyd’s Regulatory Board when corporate capital was admitted to Lloyd’s. He was accepted as a magistrate and appointed to West London in 1977 and has been Chairman for 15 years. In 2003 Peter chaired the first Specialist Domestic Violence Court which was pioneered nationally in West London.  In 1997 he jointly founded Telecom Plus plc which is today a constituent of the FTSE 250.