By Sam Berkeley, News Editor

WHAT exactly are our drug laws based on? Why are some drugs banned and others legal? Why do some carry far more severe penalties than others?

You probably think, like I used to, that it’s down to how dangerous or addictive they are. But it isn’t. And it needs to change.

The inconsistency of our drug laws was thoroughly laid bare by a recent study by Professor David Nutt. Comparing drugs on their likelihood of harming the user and others, he found that the perfectly legal drug alcohol was more harmful than even heroin and crack cocaine, while the Class A drugs Ecstasy, LSD and mushrooms were almost harmless – and far less addictive than both alcohol and nicotine.

So why are some drugs illegal when other much more harmful ones are not? If alcohol and nicotine, two of our most dangerous drugs, were discovered now, do you think they would be made legal? I doubt it.

The fact we as a society approve of some drugs and disapprove of others is not rooted in objective fact – in fact it’s closer to indoctrination and has been drip-fed to us for economic and political reasons, not scientific ones.

We are effectively in the era of drug prohibition, just like America was with alcohol in the 1920s. We all know what a disaster that was and our drug prohibition is no better.

Our drug laws are hugely inconsistent, result in huge monetary cost to implement, cause great misery and – most importantly – they clearly don’t work.

The latest drug death figures in Scotland are shameful. But amid calls from some for harsher penalties and tougher regulations, one fact has been lost: the war on drugs has been going on for decades and has made no difference.

We should take note of the overwhelming success of Portugal’s decision in 2001 to effectively decriminalise drugs, issuing the lightest of penalties and concentrating instead on helping addicts. It now has one of the lowest drug death rates in Europe.

But perhaps we should go further even than that.

Remember back when gambling was illegal? It didn’t stop people gambling, just as prohibition in America didn’t stop them drinking. It just served to put the industry into the hands of criminals who got rich from it, while making the lives of their customers more and more miserable, forcing them into crime to feed their habits and filling prisons with people who didn’t need to be there.

This is the situation we’re in with regard to drugs. If they were to be legalised then, just like with gambling and alcohol, they would be taken out of the hands of criminals and into a properly regulated industry with responsibilities for people’s wellbeing, rather than being regulated by criminals. The drugs would also be clean and not contaminated, far less likely to lead to harm.

I’m not saying drugs are harmless – they’re not. But neither are the ones that are legal now.

And I’m not condoning drug use. But just as making drugs illegal doesn’t stop people interested in taking them from taking them, surely legalising them – while making very clear what dangers they pose – wouldn’t suddenly make people with no interest in taking drugs start taking them.

As it stands, we are stigmatising perfectly decent people for doing something which science suggests is no more dangerous than having a few beers on a night out.

That is not right and that needs to change now.