In 2005 a young David Cameron vouched that current drug laws were failing, and had been failing for the past 30 years. Prior to becoming the head of the Conservatives, the current prime minister sought to see Ecstasy downgraded from its Class A status, the introduction of legal ‘shooting galleries’, as well as the introduction of state provided heroin.
A few economic crises, a general election and 9 years and the same figure has now done a complete U turn on that approach. Instead quoting figures showing that the War on Drugs is overwhelmingly successful. The usage of drugs according to Cameron has fallen dramatically with his strict drug policies taking credit. All this is despite a Home Office report stating that there is no direct ‘correlation between the toughness of a country’s approach to countering drug usage and the prevalence of drug use.’
All this political talk really begs the question of who really is right? Is the UK’s current War on Drugs really the right policy to counter the harm of drug usage, or is it simply a numbers game aiming to satisfy voters.
The UK’s drug law is currently dictated by The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The act itself is stringent and direct in dictating the UK’s policy.
“s. 3(1)(a) the importation of a controlled drug ; and (b) the exportation of a controlled drug, are hereby prohibited.
- 4(1) it shall not be lawful for a person –
(a) to produce a controlled drug; or
(b) to supply or offer a controlled drug to another.
- 5(1) it shall not be lawful for a person to have a controlled drug in his possession.”
Drug possession, creation and distribution is strictly illegal. Criminal sentencing varies as per the category of drug being used, sold or created. With sentencing varying as per the class of drugs in question. One immediate apparent issue with the legislation is its failure to assess the crime in terms of culpability and harm caused, instead the legislation is focused on the category of drug and subsequently the seriousness of the offence.
On the surface, this appears to cause no direct qualms or issues. The legislation itself appears to be largely respected by Government, due to not being repealed in the past 44 years. However, the fact that the legislation is 44 years old must surely raise eyebrows. How can a subject as dynamic and evolving as drug control still be dictated by a statute nearly half a century old. Surely the UK is falling out of touch? The plain matter of fact as highlighted by the Home Office is that Criminalisation does not necessarily lead to a decrease in drug use or production. The report published in October 2014 goes further and argues that tough criminalisation is not the best method available to reduce drug crime.
The UK’s draconian policies appear most inept when compared to the rest of the world. Termed as the Quiet Revolution, it is estimated that over the past 30 years, 26 to 30 countries have adopted decriminalisation procedures as a means to combat drug usage and production. The most famous of these being Portugal, however Armenia, Belgium, Chile, Switzerland and Brazil are amongst those who have adopted progressive policies. The results from all the countries whom have adopted these policies have been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed the evils in Pandora’s box such as casual usage and increased usage have failed to materialise.
Portugal as a case study perhaps offers the best insight into what decriminalisation could offer the UK. Portugal introduced its new policy in 2001 recognising drug usage as a public health issue rather than a criminal law issue. Drug possession for personal use was decriminalised, and instead was categorised as an administrative offence. Its important to note that Portugal have not changed their moral stance on illicit drugs, having more than a weeks supply is deemed a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and fines. However, should you be found in possession of a personal supply, you will be taken to a Dissuasion commission, comprising of health professionals and lawyers. This itself has prioritised the treatment aspect, providing abusers a more humane approach with help being the focus rather than punishment. The results over the past 10 years have been alarmingly positive. The number of cases of HIV have dropped from 1016 to 56 between 2001 and 2012. And most notably the number of deaths have dropped from 80 to 16 in the same time. Although these facts don’t prove that usage has dropped, it demonstrates how the dangerous effects of usage and continuation of usage have declined massively. And if the aim of the criminal law is not to reduce harms to the public and the individual, then surely the whole concept of the criminal law must be reconsidered.
Other progressive approaches have been adopted in the form of drug consumption rooms in Switzerland and Canada. These rooms provide a safe and clean place for drug users to consume illegal drugs, preventing overdoses and damage to the community. Users are simultaneously encouraged to give up and are given counselling to encourage them to stop drug usage. Statistics have suggested that 63% of those who use these clinics have kicked the addiction in the next year. This itself is unlikely to be implemented in the UK, and indeed it was trialled in Brighton, however the Home Office concluded that 80% of the participants were homeless persons, thus not addressing a significant enough population of the drug using culture.
Although David Cameron has quoted falling rates of usage, according to EMCDDA in 2012 the UK drug induced mortality was 38.3 persons per million and rising, whilst the average in Europe was 17.1 persons per million and dramatically falling. Suggesting there are still major flaws with our current policy. The UK often quantify success of the war on drugs in terms of arrests and seizures of drug laboratories rather than measuring the reduction in harm resulting from drug trade. Criminalisation is ultimately forcing the drugs trade into the hands of criminal gangs, who arguably cause more social damage than drug usage itself.
In every debate there are two sides to the argument. And the opposition cite that legalisation will lead to normalisation of drug usage amongst children, and potentially legalisation could lead to lower prices of some illicit drugs subsequently increasing usage. Also the commercialisation of illicit drugs could lead to the market forcing individuals to get addicted in order to increase sales. These are all credible and very real possibilities should the UK make a move towards changing the law on drug legalisation. As a result these arguments deserve consideration. The evidence available however suggests very much the contrary.
At the end of the day people do not buy unmarked alcohol bottles from the back of a pub when there is safely regulated and tested beer available from a licensed seller in the same facility. This is for the simple reason it is dangerous and unsafe practice. Why should the same apply for illicit drugs? Although by no means am I championing drug usage, nor do I wish to embrace a free spirit hippie ideology where everyone should be able to buy LSD from his or her local pub. Far from it in fact. But the evidence from countries that have adopted more progressive counter drug policies speaks for itself. The harm resulting from drug usage in these countries have fallen, and more drug abusers have become better integrated into society once more. Most drug legalisation campaigners are not vouching for a complete legalisation of drugs, but merely wish to readdress the UK’s current archaic policy, perhaps more in line with Portugal’s progressive approach. Surely a policy this successful should not be so readily ignored?