What is legal regulation?

In case you missed the release of our new debating guide last week, starting today we're going to be serialising sections from it on our blog. We've tried to present the content in a way that's slightly more accessible than a clunky PDF, so below is the text from the first section of the guide, along with some shareable graphics summarising a few of the key arguments for legal regulation.

Responsible governments already legally regulate many risky activities and other drugs effectively, including alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals. So, far from being ‘radical’, legal regulation is in fact the norm. In reality, it is prohibition that is the radical policy.


Legal regulation would mean a drugs ‘free-for-all’, in which everyone has easy access to any drug they like

  • Although the legal regulation of drugs is sometimes characterised as a ‘liberalisation’ or ‘relaxation’ of the law, it is in fact the opposite: it is about bringing the drug trade within the law, so that strict controls can be applied. Such controls are impossible to impose under prohibition
  • Legal regulation enables responsible governments to control which drugs can be sold, who has access to them, and where they can be sold. Under prohibition, it is criminals who make these decisions
  • Anyone can buy any drug they like while criminals control the trade. Drug dealers don’t ask for ID
  • Under a system of legal regulation, many activities, such as sales to minors, would remain illegal and subject to sanctions
  • It is a caricature of the reform position to say that advocates of legal regulation want drugs to be freely available – sold, for example, in supermarkets. It is irresponsible in the extreme that alcohol and tobacco are already sold in this way. We should aim for better, stricter regulation of both legal and currently illegal drugs




The legal regulation of drugs would be a dangerous leap into the unknown

  • Prohibition was the leap into the unknown. There was never any evidence that it would be effective. But now, after more than half a century of this policy, we know that it is costly and counterproductive
  • We already legally regulate many risky activities and substances effectively. Even some drugs prohibited for non-medical use – including opiates, amphetamines, cocaine and cannabis – are produced safely and securely for medical use without any of the chaos, violence and criminality of the illicit trade
  • There would be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach: the riskier the drug, the stricter the controls that should be placed on it. Some less risky drugs, for example, would be sold by licensed retailers, while more risky drugs would only be available via medical prescriptions for people registered as dependent users. The supply of the most risky preparations, such as crack cocaine, would remain prohibited
  • We can apply the lessons learned from the control of other risky substances and activities – such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, gambling and sex work – to ensure that regulation promotes public health and safety
  • Change will not happen overnight – it will be phased and cautious, based on experimentation, with policy carefully adapting and evolving in response to emerging evidence. If policies do not work they can be revisited and, where necessary, reversed



It is naïve to think legal regulation is a panacea or ‘silver bullet’ for the problems caused by drugs

  • This is a strawman argument. No one is claiming that legal regulation is a silver bullet for all the problems associated with drugs. It is, however, a silver bullet for many of the disastrous problems caused by drug prohibition
  • To meaningfully address the wider challenges posed by drugs, legal regulation must be complemented by improvements in public health, education, prevention, treatment and recovery, as well as action on poverty, inequality and social exclusion