Drugs policy isn’t keeping up with the times

We're not stifling the supply, nor are "tough" policies dissuading drug users

Related Topics

If you are trying to judge if a policy is successful, the first question to ask is: “What does success look like?” But this question has been surprisingly absent from this week’s debates following the publication of the Select Committee report, and the objectives of policy are not clear from current government drug strategy documents.

When Labour came into power in 1997, it launched a 10-year drug strategy that had clearly stated objectives, and a commitment to review progress regularly. The measures of success were a reduction in the supply of drugs into and within the UK; a reduction in the level of illegal drug use, particularly by young people; and a reduction in drug-related harms such as overdose deaths, crime and HIV/Aids.

From this week’s noise, one statement that rang true came from the Lib Dem Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne. He said that while we need to be open to new ideas and reforms in a time of rapidly changing drug markets, we should also recognise that real progress has been made in recent years in reducing some of these problems. And it’s true, some progress has been made.


As a result of decades of careful implementation of public health programmes that offered advice, support and clean needles, the UK has one of the lowest rates of HIV in the world among drug users. A national drive to identify, refer and provide treatment to offenders with drug problems in the 1990s led to a drop in burglary, theft, and shoplifting rates. The Government estimates that 4.9 million crimes per year have been prevented by successfully treating addicted offenders.

While there has been some progress, is David Cameron really justified in saying there is no need for a review? We believe that he is not – a review is needed now, more than ever. The UK, and every other country in the world, has absolutely failed to control the supply of illegal drugs. This is a business that creates hundreds of billions of pounds of profits for organised crime. And despite decades of committed action by our law enforcement organisations, illegal drugs have never been so freely available to young people. As in all business, if there’s demand and profit to be made, there will be a supply.

To take the example of cannabis, the Government’s efforts have made things worse. For decades, various strains of cannabis were grown around the world and trafficked into European markets. While some strains were strong in their psychoactive content (skunk, for example), the most popular products such as weed were milder forms of the drug. Partly as a result of our supply-reduction strategies, the cannabis market has shifted significantly in recent years, with production much closer to home, and suppliers are competing to produce stronger forms of the drug.

This is why it is more common to find skunk on the UK market, and may explain why cannabis use has gone down, as consumers prefer not to use this stronger drug. So we have fewer users, but more of them are experiencing problems with very damaging and distressing psychoactive effects. One of the policies the Global Commission on Drugs has suggested is to bring in tighter regulation of the markets, which should help control the harmful supply of stronger drugs.

We are clearly not succeeding in stifling the supply of drugs, so how are we doing in deterring demand through arresting and punishing users? If we are “tough on drugs”, potential users will be scared off. Actually, no – the evidence all points in the opposite direction. Any attempt to marginalise and punish drug users does not stop people from using drugs, and only creates its own social and health problems, at great cost to the taxpayer. “Getting tough on drugs” may be a good sound bite, but it is political self-indulgence of the worst kind.


The Government has been watching and learning lessons from abroad. The US has been enthusiastically arresting and imprisoning millions of its (poor and ethnic minority) citizens for drug possession for 30 years now, and it still has the highest level of drug use of any large industrial country. Russia has explicitly pursued a policy of demonising, harassing and imprisoning drug users, which has had no effect on the level of use, but has led to shocking death rates among some of their poorest citizens, and an explosion of drug-related Aids cases that threaten to spread to Europe. Iran, China and 30 other countries threaten the death penalty for even minor drug offences, but have not been able to reduce drug use in even those tightly controlled societies.

So what is the answer? What should the Government do in the face of the clear failure of some of the previously favoured strategies, and a rapidly changing drug market that is more diverse, with many different sources of supply and patterns of use, and that shifts much quicker than our ability to respond? There really is no simple answer, but it is clear that we need to start treating this as a public health challenge and not an issue of crime and imprisonment.

For a government to react to this situation by claiming that everything is working is dangerously complacent, and is sweeping the real challenges under the carpet. What we are looking for is a willingness to learn and experiment, and create a carefully considered and balanced strategy that has the best chance of reducing the social, health and crime problems caused by drug markets. That’s why we were so pleased to see Nick Clegg’s comments yesterday – we do need leadership to break this taboo. A Royal Commission may or may not be the best way to organise a review but, whatever the process, let’s stop pretending that a 50-year-old strategy, and a 40-year old-law, are sufficient to manage a 21st-century drug market.

Mike Trace is the chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and a former UK drug tsar. Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...


£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MAN...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A unique and rare opport...

Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Why black cats make amazing pets, and take good selfies too

Felicity Morse
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star