Should drugs be legalised?

A recent public debate pitted pro-legalisers against ‘war on drugs’ supporters. Here Brian McConnell describes the contest and gives a rundown on how the pre- and post- polling indicated a strong switch in support in one direction.

Should drugs be legalised?

By Brian McConnell*

In May 2011 the organisation Intelligence Squared, the Australian Forum for Live Debate, held a debate in Sydney, “All drugs should be legalised”, in front of an audience estimated to be about 1,000 people. The debate took the usual format of the affirmative speaker followed by the negative speaker until all six had spoken. The audience was then invited to make statements or pose questions, and they too were instructed to alternate between those of the affirmative view and those of the negative.
The audience was polled before the event and then polled after the event to determine if there had been a shift in opinion.
The speakers were:


  • Dr Alex Wodak AM a physician and Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent’s Hospital since 1982.
  • Nicholas Cowdery AM QC BA LLB, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions.
  • Wendy Harmer a prominent Australian broadcaster, entertainer and veteran of countless international comedy festivals.


  • Dr Greg Pike the Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
  • Jade Lewis a former drug user who now campaigns and educates against use of illegal drugs.
  • Paul Sheehan a columnist with the Sydney morning Herald.

More details about the speakers can be found at:
It is not intended to run through the debate here but for those interested it was videoed and recorded for publication on the IQ2 website and on the ABC at a later date. There were however some interesting points to make:  The affirmative were well armed with facts and logical reasons; the negative relied on selective choice of facts or for the most part simply none at all. For example the leader of the negative team simply stated that if all drugs were legal more people would use and more people would come to harm…without supporting evidence – thus they avoided the trap of having to listen to the model proposed by the affirmative team of “legalise and then regulate”.
The second speaker for the negative told her personal story by way of reasons why all drugs should not be legalised. Her experiences were traumatic, there is no doubt, but she is now living without drugs and is happily married with a family. The turning point for her was when she was in her early twenties and was arrested and faced imprisonment: having been caught after many years for (apparently) a drug related crime, she turned her life around.
However the point was made by Nicholas Cowdery that if all drugs were legalised and regulated she would not have had to have such experiences. This was emphasised by Tony Trimingham, speaking from the audience later, who acknowledged the woman’s experience but said that the law had not saved his son but had been more the cause of his death.
Wendy Harmer pointed out the hypocrisy of the current laws – a most dangerous drug is legalised while a much less harmful one was prohibited – and she proposed a prohibition on hypocrisy.
The debate reflected the opinions in the general community. On the one hand there is evidence and logic, an identification of the hypocrisy of the laws, and the saving of lives and misery. On the other hand there is the disregard for truth, selective use of facts or creation of “facts”, and appeal to traumatic personal experiences caused by drugs and how the blunt and harsh instrument of the criminal law can turn all those lives around.
The result of the debate? Before the debate most were in favour of the proposition but almost one third were undecided. After the debate when the audience had heard all the arguments and had listened to the audience comments almost all of the undecided then agreed that “all drugs should be legalised”, resulting in almost 70% for the proposition and with little change in those against the proposition.


Pre-debate poll

Post-debate poll











* Brian McConnell heads the organisation Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform,  This article is taken from their May 2011 newsletter, ISSN 1444-200

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