Drug related deaths in England and Wales are at an all-time high. According to figures released last month by the Office of National Statistics, there were 4,359 deaths caused by illicit drug poisoning in 2018 - a 17% increase from the previous year. The response from the Home Office was to point the blame at people who use drugs themselves – a hypocritical response considering what we know about the use of illicit substances by UK politicians including our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
And this weekend a senior member of the government’s drug advisory panel quit over political interference in the appointment of independent experts, after crime minister Victoria Atkins vetoed the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, who had previously called for a radical new approach to drug policy.
This kind of interference and finger-pointing demonstrates a worrying failure to recognise the role that current UK drug policy has played in the rising number of deaths. These deaths were in fact entirely preventable and occurred as a result of our failing policy – commonly understood as the ‘war on drugs’. This war is a political decision which prioritises punishment over the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs.
It is time we moved away from a model of criminalisation and accept that a drug free world is unachievable – people have been using recreational drugs for centuries and will continue to do so for many more. Instead, we need to focus on making the use of illicit drugs as safe as possible. Not only will this save us billions in wasted public money spent on policing and prosecuting people who use drugs, it will also mean those that use drugs can live healthier and safer lives. We need drug testing, whereby people who use drugs are given reliable and accurate information about the content and potency of a drug before it is consumed; drug consumption rooms where people who use drugs are able to consume drugs in a professionally supervised healthcare facility; and needle exchange programmes where people who inject drugs can access clean needles.
All of these health based approaches to drug use have been shown to have positive health outcomes in both the UK and other countries across the world from the USA to Portugal, as I’ll come back to later. For example, 18% of people at UK festivals disposed of their drugs after being made aware of their content through drug testing, a trial conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health showed. A New York study also saw a 30% drop in the transmission of HIV as a result of their needle exchange programmes in the city.
But this is not just about ensuring better health outcomes for people who use drugs. Current drug policies also have much wider impacts for our public health. One clear example is how the criminalisation of people involved in the drugs trade locks them into poverty by undermining education and employment opportunities. This is especially true for black communities in the UK. Black communities are six times more likely to be arrested for drug related offenses than white people, despite similar levels of drug use, the drugs law experts Release have found.
The public financial cost of our current drug policies is another example of wider impacts to our public health. Every year, the UK government currently spends an estimated £1.6 billion on criminal justice based responses to the illicit drugs trade despite no evidence linking these policies to a reduction in the use, production and sale of illicit substances. This money would be better spent on repairing the damage done by the UK’s drug policies through investments in harm reduction, and other related public services that have been impacted by our failing policies.
To understand what alternative drug policies could work best for the UK, we need to turn to the experiences of other countries around the world who are calling for an end to the so called ‘war on drugs’, instead championing policies that put public health first. There is a lot we can learn from the experience of Portugal for instance. Since decriminalising the use of drugs in 2001 they’ve seen a significant reduction in HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. In 15 years, their HIV infection rates have plummeted from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 to 4.2 cases per million in 2015 – a massive drop which has been attributed to the change in their drug policies.
The legal regulation of cannabis has also been linked to positive public health outcomes. The legal cannabis market in some US states, for example, has created nearly 300,000 jobs either directly or indirectly. In Canada, the legally regulated cannabis market has been linked to declining rates of alcohol consumption for young people. Bolivia is also a good example of how legally regulating the drugs market can have positive public health outcomes. Since legally regulating the coca market in 2004, there has been a significant drop in coca production related violence and deaths, and coca growing now provides a sustainable livelihood and reliable income options for communities.
The UK’s drugs policy has not only failed by its own standards, it has also entrenched discrimination and undermined the health and wellbeing of people who consume drugs those involved in the drugs trade and beyond. We need to learn from the experiences of other countries and champion policies that repair the damage done to our public health in the widest sense. The UK government should start with decriminalising all low-level engagement in the illicit drugs trade, and create a legally regulated drugs market for cannabis. You can find out more about this in our campaign calling on the UK government to bring our drug policy into the 21st century and introduce a legally regulated cannabis market here.