Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why the war on drugs isn’t working

It is time for a new approach to drugs in the UK – and Jeremy Corbyn’s metro-liberal Labour party can help lead the way, says Jack May

Jeremy Corbyn’s management of the Labour party deserves credit where it is due.

Since he took the reigns of the party nearly three years ago, Labour has become very good at two things – appealing to younger people, metropolitan types and liberals, and finding new proposals that involve either offering to spend vast billions of public money, or outlining new public revenue streams that would allegedly raise that cash.

Looking across the spread of proposals, announced both in the 2017 general election campaign and in subsequent months, reveals one especially prominent missed opportunity that may well keep both strands ticking along: drugs reform.

Where Corbyn proposes bringing us up to date in line with many of our European cousins on a number of issues – such as free tuition fees at university and nationalised rail services – he has offered no similarly en vogue approach to the failed war on drugs.

In a context of tightening police budgets in the face of what seems to be a spike in violent crime (and knife crime in particular), we still expect forces to look out for, chase up and process minor infringements of drugs laws for personal use. At the same time, we treat addicts – many of whom are in, or are spiralling towards, the destitution of homelessness – as criminals first and foremost rather than as sick patients needing treatment. All the while, dealers can make a killing – and often, sadly, indirectly cause a killing – by cutting drugs with harmful substances in order to increase their margins at the expense of their customers.

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After its Eurovision spectacle last weekend, we can perhaps learn from Portugal’s example. In 2001, the country decriminalised all drug possession for personal use, instead choosing to treat drugs ‘infringements’ as issues for the health services rather than the criminal and justice systems.

Portugal tackled a rampant drugs-related crime crisis, a mental health crisis, and soaring rates of HIV infection, by recalibrating how it categorised drugs as a national problem.

Instead of facing arrest, individuals caught with drugs for personal use are given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a commission of doctors, lawyers and social workers to evaluate the support services available, and the treatment plans on offer.

There is plenty to be read about Portugal’s policy shift – and how, admittedly, it had foundations in a cultural shift that was already underway – but the overwhelming evidence is that it has proved a more realistic and pragmatic way to handle narcotics.

The contrast between this approach and that of the United States with regards most illegal drugs is clear. While new HIV infections, levels of crime, and deaths from overdoses have fallen in Portugal, 2016 saw as many Americans die from overdoses as in the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars put together. Portugal, meanwhile, estimates that around 25,000 people use heroin, down from 100,000 in 2001. The country’s drug mortality rate is one tenth that of the United Kingdom’s – it is clear that we can learn something from our fado-singing allies of old.

While decriminalisation is a vital public health step that can transform our approach to the hardest drugs, it is worth looking elsewhere internationally to consider what policy to enact with regards less harmful drugs – those widely considered by the scientific community to be significantly less harmful than, say, alcohol.

The Netherlands shows us how a liberal, responsible drugs policy can reap rewards beyond the spheres of public health and saving police time.

There, the legalisation – rather than merely decriminalisation – of cannabis has supported a vibrant economy of coffee shops, many of them small, independent businesses, helping to sustain local high streets and boosting tax revenues.

In terms of the widely agreed scientific evidence with regards to how harmful different stimulant and depressant substances are – and the oft-cited study that alcohol would be deemed a class A drug if discovered today – it makes sense for us to take as beneficent an approach (if not more so) to cannabis as we to do alcohol. In practical terms, the government should be as much supporting the enterprising founder of a coffeeshop on Watford High Street as it would the long-standing owner of a hardy pub in Whitstable or an independent wine bar in Edinburgh.

The most recent relevant international example is also provided by the United States, where 38 states have legalised cannabis in any capacity, and nine have legalised it for general use. Sales of legal cannabis in North America surged to $9.7bn (£7.2bn) in 2017, with sales of $24.5bn (£18.1bn) forecast by 2021.

While not all of that will be new cash flowing around the economy – people will no doubt have chosen to spend money on legal cannabis instead of other products – it does represent a significant boon to the legitimate economy, and particularly to possible future tax revenues.

Decriminalisation offers us a liberal, responsible, humane approach to hard narcotics that we know can reap serious results – while legalisation on a limited, regulated, taxable basis pump adrenaline into the economy and provide us with the public revenue to continue to support the NHS that all of us – drug users or otherwise – rely on so much.


Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets at @JackO_May


Photo: Stay Regular, licensed under Creative Commons

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