Why are some drugs legal and others that aren't as dangerous illegal?

Why are some drugs legal (like alcohol) and other drugs that aren't as dangerous (like cannabis) illegal?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that different drugs affect different people in different ways. Even though some people can use cannabis and not experience any major issues, there are others who will have great problems with this drug. Comparing one drug to another is problematic – all drug use, whether it be legal, illegal or pharmaceutical entails some degree of risk …

With that out of the way, back to your question …

A range of different substances have been consumed for medical, religious and recreational reasons for thousands of years. Western society started to make non-medical drug use illegal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and when this began to happen, a range of factors determined whether a drug was to be controlled by the full force of law or through taxation and regulations such as age restrictions.

The health or social harm of a drug is not the only the reason why some substances are illegal and others are not. If it were, alcohol and tobacco would surely be made illegal and some illegal drugs may even have some legal restrictions relaxed. Societal attitudes, often reinforced by the news media, moral panics, racism and powerful commercial interests have been proven to play a major part in why we have the drug laws we do …

If we look at some specific examples across time, it may help to illustrate that many of the laws in this area were not originally passed due to concern about health or social harm related to a particular drug.

In the United States, the first drug law was passed in 1875 banning Chinese opium-smoking dens in San Francisco. The reason cited was that women and young girls, as well as "young men of respectable family", were being induced to smoke opium. No action was taken against the producers of opium-based 'cure-all' medicines, which were widely taken by white Americans. The first Australian laws in this area also restricted the smoking of opium whilst allowing the sale and consumption of opiate medicines. Historians have asserted that the primary purpose of the laws was clearly to discourage the entry of Chinese people to Australia, rather than to restrict the importation of opium itself.

In 1937, once again in the US, moral campaigners were able to make cannabis an illegal drug with the introduction of the Marijuana Tax Act. They were able to do this with the help of newspapers that successfully created great fear and concern amongst the general community about the impact of cannabis on American youth, including stories of cannabis smoking Mexican immigrants seducing white women. The ensuing public anxiety led to the drug being banned. Around this time, cannabis was not consumed on a large scale in Australia, although it was available for sale as cigarettes called 'Cigares de Joy' until the 1920s. Partly to comply with international pressure, cannabis use and importation was prohibited in 1926.

The United Nations drafted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, effectively criminalising drug production, cultivation, possession and supply across the globe, even though few countries actually experienced domestic drug problems at this time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many countries including Australia passed laws to enforce the UN Convention.

Unfortunately there is no simple reason to explain why some drugs are legal and others are not. It is quite clear, however, that the legal nature of a particular substance is not always related to the harms associated with the drug. When you closely examine the original reasons behind the introduction of specific laws, they often have to do with a range of historical factors, whether they be based on moral panic, racism or greed. Over time, as we have learned more about the harms associated with a particular substance, the reasons behind laws may actually make more sense in some cases, while in others the decisions may be difficult to justify.

First published: April 2018