The chance to reform the UK's backwards drugs policy is finally here – and we cannot waste it

For the first time in over 40 years the Government has acknowledged that prohibition and populist rhetoric don't work

The long-delayed report released by the Home Office highlights how its own approach to drugs is not based on evidence.

In particular, the report – which looks at the effectiveness of other countries’ drug policies – concludes that harsh penalties for drug users have no effect on levels of drug use. That punitive drug laws have a deterrent effect is a key assumption underpinning both the UK’s approach and prohibitionist drug policy more broadly. The report says: “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.”

This isn’t much of a surprise to anyone with an interest in drug policy. This is what they found in Portugal, which decriminalised the personal possession of all drugs in 2001. In fact, by two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was before the introduction of the decriminalisation policy, which was accompanied by more health-centred measures.

The Home Office also states that it “will monitor the impacts” of the legally regulated cannabis markets established in Uruguay and the US states of Washington and Colorado. This is a welcome move because, as the report says, “these policies have common aims – disrupting organised crime and exercising greater control over the use of cannabis”.

Indeed, these markets mean that governments – rather than organised criminals – are in control of the cannabis trade, managing it in a way that better protects public health and safety.

It is commendable that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have found common ground and acknowledged the evidence that less punitive, health-based approaches to drugs can deliver better outcomes.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The previously toxic nature of this debate had led politicians to adopt polarised positions that consisted of little more than populist rhetoric. 

This report demonstrates that a cross-party approach is a prerequisite both for genuine scrutiny, and ultimately, for substantive, evidence-based reform. It is therefore crucial that the Labour Party also engages in this debate, to move beyond political point-scoring and towards a dispassionate consideration of what works. However, it is ironic that the UK Government, while examining the policies in place in other countries, has never meaningfully evaluated its own approach. In 2010, the National Audit Office criticised the Government for having no evaluative framework whatsoever for assessing the UK’s drug strategy.

This is a new era, in which Lib Dems and Tories can agree that there are viable alternatives to enforcement-led drug policy and where the majority of the public support review and reform. For the first time in over 40 years, we have an opportunity to not only compare alternatives to prohibition, but to actually implement them.

George Murkin is policy and communications officer of Transform, a charitable think tank that campaigns for the legal regulation of drugs

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