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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own