openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Drug prohibition isn't working - and the problem is getting worse in lockdown

Britain’s drug policy is based more on the country's history of war, snobbery, and racism than on evidence of what works.

Laura Mehers
3 November 2020
Cocaine use continues to rise, and prohibition is increasingly ineffective. Pikrepo/CC0.

Britain’s ‘war on drugs’ is failing. It’s been failing abjectly for decades. But the current government is in denial about that failure, and remains adamantly committed to prohibition.

Last week official data revealed that drug crimes rose 30% during the peak months of lockdown compared to the same period last year.

Recreational drug use is rising steadily too. In 2017, 8.5% of adults aged 16-59 admitted to having taken an illicit drug at least once – roughly 4.5 million people. And last year saw the highest recorded number of drug-related deaths to date, with 4,393 deaths involving illicit or prescription drugs in England and Wales, including 708 related to cocaine alone.

If we want an evidence-based approach to the drugs crisis, we could look to Portugal, which has seen drug-related deaths fall by 80% after decriminalising personal consumption in 2001. Closer to home, the West Midlands has been running a pilot scheme to promote rehab rather than prison for users of Class A as well as Class B drugs, a scheme now being looked at by other police forces, the Times reported this week.

But the UK has a paradoxical relationship with illegal drugs, shaped more by its history than by common sense. The West Midlands initiative is headlined dubiously “regular users given a pass”. The media and politicians seem reluctant to let go of their sensationalism about this ‘social plague’, and restrictions that have proven so ineffective over decades.

Yet prior to the First World War, the British public were more preoccupied with alcohol use and abuse. Hard recreational drugs were legal, but not commonplace. Chemists sold cocaine over the counter, the drug was used mostly in small artistic and bohemian circles. Queen Victoria was rumoured to be a regular user of opium.

Writers and artists hailed the effects. Freud declared it a “magical substance” and Robert Louis Stephenson claimed to have written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde whilst under the influence. The public impression was that cocaine was a drug for intellectuals, and not used widely outside of these clusters.

Everything began to change during the First World War. Rumours found their way back from France of drug-fuelled antics among soldiers, triggering a media frenzy that these recreational drugs would hamper war efforts. Soldiers were reportedly prescribed the former to help them deal with the psychological effects of battle. Military conflict has always relied on inebriation to some extent, and this war was no exception.

The 1914 Defence of The Realm Act included, amongst other restrictions including press censorship, the first legal attempts to regulate narcotics, all with the singular aim of protecting the allied war effort. In the aftermath of the war and the moral panic around drug use on the front and at home, the Dangerous Drugs Act was passed in 1920 and the war on drugs was born.

Initial legislation didn’t lead to an immediate, all-out drug conflict, and recreational use remained relatively low for a long time following its criminalisation. It is really only in the last half century that authorities have found themselves facing popularised drug use, and the localised impacts of powerful international cartels. Previously, Britain had a reasonably small drugs subculture. But global consumption and recreational use has increased. Contemporary society has cultivated a substantial drug habit which shows no signs of lessening with further legislation.

In August Shaun Bailey, Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, called on employers to conduct mass drug testing in the workplace. Priti Patel publicly backed the idea, despite years of evidence showing that severe regulation and prohibition does not reduce the consumption of illegal drugs, nor reduce addiction.

Responding to Bailey’s proposal, the Home Secretary blamed middle-class cocaine demand for drug running across county lines. Yet the government’s own review found that heroin and crack are the main source of drug running and these are not typically middle-class drugs. Given the number of Cabinet colleagues who are self-professed dabblers, the public may wonder whether MPs will also be included in workplace drug testing, or whether measures will continue to target middle and working class people.

Our drug laws and policy see a disproportionate amount of young Black people in prison for possession. Ethnic minority groups are more likely to be convicted on minor drug offences and with tougher sentences. Strict legislation may leave space for more relaxed interpretation by the courts and police, at least for some groups – but the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement has yet again highlighted the racial disparities in drug policing, indicating another failing and damaging aspect of the war on drugs.

In 2019, the war on drugs cost £100m and 1.5 million policing hours on cannabis alone. Mr Bailey’s proposal would add to the burden of cost, with no concrete promise of result. Decriminalisation won’t see a complete reduction in drug crimes or overdoses, but it will free up more money and manpower to tackle organised large-scale drug operations and treatment rather than criminalisation for addicts, thus reducing overdoses, violent crimes and prison numbers.

Further legislation and clampdowns merely perpetuate individual blame in a crisis that affects the entire nation. A different approach is essential if we are to avoid another 50 years of expensive and failing measures and losing more lives to the war on drugs.

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