Time to rethink Britain's drugs policy

Type: Think Pieces Written by Henry Oliver | Friday 21 January 2011

The US has effectively dropped the term 'War on Drugs', a tacit admission of that policy's failure. Here, Henry Oliver argues that Britain should learn from the rest of the world and its own history. The government should rethink its policies on drugs and find new policies that work.

Now that the American government has dropped the phrase ‘War on Drugs’ it’s time for Britain's government to re-think policy. Although the evidence is increasingly stacked against current policy, legislators and governments are blinded by conventional morality about drugs. The Home Office set out its stall recently in response to Professor Sir Ian Gilmore’s comments about the need to consider decriminalizing class-A drugs:

Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.

And that’s it. Nothing more was said. One painfully self-evident sentence and two vapid chunks of politico blurb is the full extent of the response from this great office of state. Beliefs and priorities are insufficient: the Home Office needs to respond directly to the comments made by one of the most eminent physicians in the country, otherwise Ms May risks becoming yet another New Labour Home Secretary – acting contrary to, or seemingly in ignorance of, evidence and advice.

The simple belief that drugs are bad and should be banned is harmful and misguided. It doesn’t deal with some very plain facts. The Association of Chief Police Officers recently said that, ‘between 2004 and 2007, 800 cannabis factories a year were being uncovered by police. That rose to over 3000 a year in 2007/08 and over 6800 in 2009/10.’ Apparently this is good news for the law-enforcement policy. However, this belies the scale of drug cultivation and use, which is much higher than previously thought. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Anyone who watched Angus Macqueen’s excellent series of programms on Channel 4 recently will be able to recall some of the astonishing statistics revealed. The most startling being that of all the heroin that enters Scotland only 1% is detected by HMC.

Bringing the lie to the idea that prohibition works is not tricky. As Milton Friedman said, ‘Under prohibition of alcohol, deaths from alcohol poisoning, from poisoning by things that were mixed in with the bootleg alcohol, went up sharply. Similarly, under drug prohibition, deaths from overdose, from adulterations, from adulterated substances have gone up.’ In 2009 the Select Committee for Home Affairs found that ‘the street price of cocaine powder has halved over the past ten years, from £80 per gram in 1999 to £40 in 2009.’ It also reported that purity of seized cocaine ranged from 5 – 24% and that we have the second highest rate of use in Europe. The EMCDDA also reported that whilst estimated production of heroin globally is 735 tonnes of that only 65 were seized. Heroin, of course, is the real killer. It accounts for the majority of deaths from drug use in the EU. And the main supply route starts in Afghanistan, moves through Iran and over to Turkey and from there it is spread throughout Europe.

Then there’s addiction. Whilst the heavy-handed approach looks good in the press and picks up a few otherwise harmless, but now criminalised, young people it does nothing at all to reduce addiction – the only real problem. This is the crux of the problem with government policy. Morally it looks good to arrest people but that doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Addicts are the problem. The fact that 90% of the heroin in Britain still comes from Afghanistan is the problem. People look to Sweden as a model of a strong conservative approach but they still have a core addiction rate that has not been altered by their policies. The only effect of these draconian measures is to prevent people making a choice. When people are curious they should indulge their curiosity. People should be allowed to try drugs for the same reasons they should be allowed to read fascist literature and eat fast food.  

Look at the direct correlation in recent years between the law-and-order approach to underage drinking and the huge rise in binge drinking and alcohol related illnesses in the under-18s. If you want people to be responsible you must trust them. The moral high ground is a lonely place. It will always be true that: ‘The insect-youth are on the wing,Eager to taste the honied spring/And float amid the liquid noon.’ And when you tell them what to do and what not to do they respond, ‘in accents low,/The sportive kind reply:/Poor moralist! and what art thou?/A solitary fly!’ This is not a panacea, but it will help to undo some of the damage done by successive parental Home Secretaries who ludicrously think the solution is discipline.

Most of the factors surrounding addiction are social and pre-disposed. And anyway, there are far greater risks from tobacco and alcohol than from cannabis. What we are doing now is forcing a puritanical drugs mentality on young people, alienating them from society. We are moralising instead of helping. The worst instance of this recently was not Alan Johnson’s decision to ban methadrone, or his decision to sack Professor Nutt (after all, many a postman turned politician knows better than a professor of pharmacology) but Jacqui Smith’s decision to upgrade cannabis.

When people take cannabis they are not putting themselves or others at serious risk; at least, no more serious risk than if they had imbibed alcohol or tobacco. This has been stated and re-stated by scientists. This is from the most recent report on cannabis by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs:

"Smoking cannabis is associated with longer-term damage to the respiratory tract and the lungs, with an increased risk of chronic bronchitis. There is also a potential long-term risk of lung cancer. Severe cases of lung damage (bullae formation) have been reported in young heavy cannabis users. The extent to which these longer-term effects are causally related to cannabis use is uncertain: such changes also occur in people who use tobacco over long periods of time. In Britain, cannabis is commonly smoked with tobacco. Due to the nature of cannabis use, fewer joints are smoked by an individual over long periods compared with cigarettes. The Council therefore considers that smoking cannabis, even when mixed with tobacco, is less likely to harm lungs than if tobacco is used alone."

The report also advised that, ‘the effects of cannabis on the heart and blood vessels are similar to the effects of moderate exercise and do not constitute a risk in healthy adolescents or adults.’ Jacqui Smith paraphrased all this as ‘cannabis use poses a real threat to health’ in her Commons statement when she upgraded cannabis to class B in 2008.

She also stated that use had fallen significantly and that ‘is a testament to the Government’s drug strategy.’ However, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reported 30% use in the UK – above Europe’s 22% average. It noted Portugal’s liberal scheme has not lead to increased use. And when she made this statement there were thousands of cannabis farms undetected across the country – making up to £500,000 a year each.

The nature of the problem eluded the Home Secretary then as apparently it does now. As Lord Mancroft told the Select Committee on Home Affairs, ‘the controls do not work…anywhere on the streets of London you can buy any…drugs.’ Making cannabis a class B drugs drives people towards dealers of harder drugs. The ACMD doesn’t think a physical link exists between cannabis and harder drugs. Going to these dealers creates that link.

In light of this and with the memories of Professor Nutt’s dismissal under Alan Johnson still fresh, let’s hope the Home Office move away from didactic old-world policy and just considers the alternatives: at least legalise cannabis, rehabilitate first-time non-violent offenders, provide pure drugs and clean needles to addicts to help wean them off; help people to reintegrate, don’t slap them on the wrist like a child out of turn and give them time on the naughty step where they inevitably learn more about drugs and crime than they ever imagined there was to know.

Once these steps are taken, and one of the world’s largest industries is brought within the tax system, then we can have a sensible approach to the problems of crime and addiction that drugs cause. The revenue saved by not pursing futile authoritarian measures alone will be a significant source of funding, let alone the money raised from a small tax of legally obtained drugs, that are known to be safer than the filth on the streets.

We currently spend tens of millions pursuing but not catching these criminals and then we spend more money putting the ones we do catch through the justice system and others through the NHS. There is only one argument against legalisation that stands to reason, and it’s the old ‘not under my roof’ approach. It is surely time to admit, after a hundred years, that this is a failed policy, lacking in empirical results what it (supposedly) gains in morality. We must try the alternatives, or at least discuss them without the argument being that all drugs are always wrong and bad because some users of some drugs have done things that are wrong or bad.

Now that the Ministry of Justice is taking a more sensible approach to prisons, let’s hope its older but surlier brother the Home Office will follow suit with drug policy. If a young man commits a petty crime, the government shouldn't spend thousands on what is effectively a short course in ‘How to be a Criminal’ at Her Majesty’s pleasure. If he wants to try drugs, let him – don’t send him to the black-market where he’ll quickly get involved with all sorts of things he might not otherwise have got involved with, and end up funding criminality. That is not a free society. As President Obama said, ‘Let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart.’