The UK’s Drug Policy

The policy of the UK government has been consistent: to criminalise drug users and addicts instead of giving them assistance to resolve what is, at the end of the day, a health problem. Take, for example, the reclassification of cannabis from a class C to a class B drug under Labour in 2008, meaning harsher sentences. Even khat, a relatively harmless drug (the WHO stating it can form psychological dependence, but considers it not to be seriously problematic, being on the bottom of the scale in terms of harm) consumed mainly by Yemeni and East African communities in the UK, was criminalised in 2014. Home secretary at the time (and now the UK’s very own post-Brexit, post-truth Sithlord) Theresa May went against the recommendations by the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), and now it’s a Class C drug, punishable by up to two years in prison and an unlimited fine (after being stopped with the substance more than twice).

A report by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in The Lancet in 2010 showed that LSD, magic mushrooms and ecstasy (MDMA) are all considered less harmful than khat, cannabis, alcohol, cocaine, tobacco, or heroin, yet they are class A drugs. They concluded that “the findings correlate poorly with present UK drug classification, which is not based simply on considerations of harm.”

The classification of these drugs reflects the government’s willingness to avoid a science-based approach to drug laws, instead painting users of these products as criminals. The government even brought in a strange, poorly-worded and vague bill in 2015 called The Psychoactive Substances Bill, that seemed to lack definition of what could be considered a psychoactive substance, and brings up the issue of potentially helpful new drugs in a medical context can be banned outright. The ISCD goes into more detail here.

The Prison Reform Trust states that 15% of men and women are in prison on drug offences, and 66% of women and 38% of men report committing offences in order to acquire money for drugs. These problems are tied to addiction, and locking people up along with people that have committed more serious, violent acts cannot help.

But the Conservative government seems to want to embark on some Reaganite moral crusade against drugs, whilst simultaneously refusing to bring in policies that would lower the consumption of one of the most widespread and dangerous substances, alcohol. Westminster rejected minimum pricing proposals in 2013 pushed by health groups, Minister Jeremy Browne stating that there wasn’t enough “concrete evidence” to prove that a minimum unit price would prevent alcohol-related harm.  A new report published in December 2016 illustrates that alcohol is the main killer of people between 15 – 49 years old. No concrete evidence?

The EU is also complicit in this: its courts ruled that the Scottish Government’s attempt to bring in minimum unit pricing would breach EU free trade rules—note the lobbying from Scottish Whisky Association with support from European alcohol producers organisations—before Scotlands’ courts ruled it to be legal in October 2016, only after four years of legal challenges from the SWA).

The United Kingdom already has a large prison population, the largest in Europe—and sits high in the European incarceration rates. British prisons are overcrowded and have had frequent riots recently, meaning conditions that are unlikely to rehabilitate prisoners or help them reintegrate into society upon leaving. Sentences are getting longer and more indeterminate sentences are being issued. Prisons are trying to cram as many prisoners in as they can fit, despite the obvious impacts on violence, such as G4S-run HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton which is converting single cells into double cells to increase capacity by nearly a third. G4S aren’t exactly a very nice company by any measure, given their track record of human rights abuses, international law violations and prisoner abuse. God knows why such a shitty company would be given contracts so easily, even after overcharging the government by millions and then failing to provide the promised services time and time again (look at the London Olympics deal). Clearly throwing more people in prisons with addictions isn’t going to solve much, especially if prisons are overcrowded, rife with violence and understaffed.

It seems as though destroying your health and the health of others is fine, as long as it’s state permitted. But if you want to sit around in your underwear, watching Netflix whilst smoking weed, you can be punished with fines and prison sentences going up to five years, as well as unlimited fines. Going out and drinking your liver to oblivion is somehow and acceptable whilst any other drugs are immoral? I believe there’s cultural elements in the mix, that Europeans have consumed alcohol for a very long time, that the laws imposed don’t shock the population as we normalise certain substances whilst believing others are far worse.

 What is next for the government? Will they go on some poorly-planned and horribly executed war on drugs, like the US did, blinded by ideology, landing them with the largest prison population and the second-highest incarceration rate in the world? It is hard to believe that after decades of failed drug policy across the globe politicians, and the general population for that matter, continues to remain so scientifically illiterate, or just ignorant, and believe that punishment is the only response, that a state can impose some contradictory moral code on its citizens without even having to prove its effectiveness, or indeed that it works at all.

It would be more sensible to start a decriminalisation policy or even legalisation policy. Something along the lines of the Portuguese model of decriminalisation, which may have contributed to it achieving some of the lowest overdose rates in Europe (contrasted with Norway and Sweden’s very high overdose rates – and their very strict drug enforcement, Sweden having a zero-tolerance approach to creating a fantastical “drug free society” with a complete lack of supervised consumption centres and Norway’s repressive failure to differentiate between problematic and non-problematic users). One last spanner in the works many reports and studies (here, here, and here for example) show direct links between inequality and drug use, I guess as long as the UK has an economy rigged in favour of the wealthy and treats drugs as a criminal problem, nothing will get better.

For further reading on decriminalisation and drug policy I’d recommend the following websites and articles:


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