Legalising drugs in the UK: Why we need to talk about regulation and decriminalisation

Calls for drugs to be regulated in the UK are growing

Heather Saul
Saturday 31 January 2015 13:21 GMT

There has been a lot about drugs in the news recently, or, more specifically, cannabis. Jon Snow will appear on TV stoned tonight in an experiment testing the effects of cannabis on the brain. Colorado media tells tales of lower crime levels, increased tourism and an estimated $53 million (£34 million) generated in tax revenue in the twelve months after the drug was legalised.

Cannabis is now firmly at the heart of debate over whether drugs should be decriminalised in the UK, where it is a Class B substance and where being in possession of it could earn the holder a five-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.

But what about harder drugs? Class A substances, such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD could see those in possession handed seven years in prison and an unlimited fine. All of these have one thing in common – they are, to varying degrees, physically or psychologically addictive. With that addiction comes the risk of exploitation at the hands of drug dealers and gangs peddling large quantities on the street.

Fighting the war on drugs in the UK costs an estimated £13 billion annually. It has cost lives recently, too; four people died after taking ecstasy pills made from a high concentration of the chemical PMMA instead of MDMA late in 2014. At least 765 died of a heroin overdose in 2013 – up 32 per cent on the year previous. Over 2,000 deaths were drug related overall.

A user prepares to inject heroin

Neil Woods, who will be appearing alongside Mr Snow on Channel 4's Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial tonight, is one of many voices calling for the Government’s prohibitionist drug policy to be reformed. Having worked as a detective for 14 years, a period he largely spent undercover targeting the sale and distribution of drugs by organised crime gangs, he has a unique perspective on the issue. Nearly a decade-and-a-half of being involved in undercover work saw him walk away with one conclusion - that current drugs laws only serve to hurt the most vulnerable in society.

Mr Woods, now Vice Chairman for the drug reform campaign group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Leap) UK, believes the only way to win the war on drugs is to regulate them, thereby tackling the power of organised crime. In his view, it is actually the illegality of the drug that causes the biggest problems.

When asked why he campaigns for drug reform after spending such a prolonged period enforcing drug laws, his answer is simple. “In 14 years, I had no impact on the flow of drugs. All I did in my time undercover was make the lives of the vulnerable more unbearable. By the end of it, I knew that the war on drugs was absolutely impossible to win."

Mr Woods says he arrived at this conclusion partly because of how quickly gang leaders and members are evolving to escape prosecution. “[The US crime drama] The Wire really is spot on with the observation that for every step police take, there is always a counter move – there is a constantly evolving element to organised crime," he said. "A primary part of this evolution involves viciousness and fear – gangs intimidate people into not becoming informants or use brutality to create fear.”

He described discovering that an officer on his undercover team was actually being paid a hefty salary by an organised crime gang to join police ranks, work within his squad and feed information back to gang bosses.

“They (corrupt police officers) are everywhere. Organised crime gangs will now recruit people to join the police and pay them to supply information. The response from senior management of covert policing – the management that looked after my kind of role – was that this is always going to happen. They expect it to when there is that much money involved.”

There was “endemic corruption” in the Metropolitan Police, according to a secret Scotland Yard report from 2002

Corruption poses a major problem for police trying to enforce the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). One of the biggest arguments for drug reform is that regulating drugs takes it out of the hands of drug dealers and into a controlled and therefore safer market.

"One of the most interesting but predictable statistics regarding the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado is the number of young people smoking cannabis has dropped because it becomes difficult for them to buy it," Mr Woods said.

“If MDMA was sold as part of a regulated market, it would save lives overnight. Look at the people that died of PMMA – in a regulated market, that wouldn’t have happened because the purity would have been checked. It’s the same for most drugs. Heroin is tricky, but bear in mind, there aren’t people out there queuing up to try it recreationally. There is a finite number of people who will ever try it, and it isn’t very large.”

A small bag of the drug Ecstasy

A more visible problem is the damage addicts do to themselves and the difficulties faced by doctors and health services struggling to treat them - partly because the substance they are dependent upon is illegal. One suggested reform measure aimed at helping people tackle their heroin addiction is to control their intake by prescribing the drug.

Mr Woods cited Switzerland as a country that had one of highest heroin problems in Europe and turned it around by changing the way they treated addicts.

"They took an experiment where heroin was prescribed to opiate addicts and based their policy on it to create heroin assisted therapy. It is documented as one of the most successful heroin treatments in the world. Twenty per cent of people are still on it [heroin] – but 80 per cent are either not or in successful recovery. That 20 per cent are alive, safe, not being exploited – and they might even be happy.”

A paramedic holds a kit containing syringes, bandaids and antiseptic pads which are going to be used by drug addicts inside a supervised injection room in Athens

In a recent Norwegian documentary, heroin addict Magnus Lilleberg described begging for money to feed his habit and suffering bouts of psychosis when he tried to go cold turkey alone. Lilleberg was critical of the methadone substitution programme in Norway, which is also used in the UK, claiming it did not work for him. The documentary maker filming him argued that because of this, Lilleberg found himself living in inhuman conditions "in one of the best health and welfare systems in the world".

Sarah* is another person who struggled with this drug rehabilitation system. She says she was physically abused by her father throughout her childhood and sexually abused by one of his friends until she was 10. She tried cannabis for the first time aged 12 and was given heroin at the age of 14. Within the next year she was working as a prostitute to pay for her drug use and at 18 formed a relationship with the man who supplied her with heroin.

“He sent me out to work and the first night I was out, a guy didn’t pay me,” she said. “I went home with no money, so he beat me up and then sent me out again when I was presentable.”

She says her experience on this night is common among sex workers, many of whom are selling their bodies to pay for substance use sparked by abuse or trauma. For Sarah, prescribing heroin would be one way of guiding users towards help, instead of into the arms of dealers and pimps.

“Street sex workers are not paid well, they are not safe and they are not looked after. Some are pimped out and never see any money. The thing with heroin assisted treatment is it just keeps people out of trouble. These are the most vulnerable members of society who have been through hell, and then they are dealing with nasty people who are ripping them off.

“If you could get heroin on prescription then that would be a gateway for that doctor to find out what had happened to that person and to prescribe counselling and therapy, the things they actually need. Instead, the illegality of the drug sends it underground.

“When you work in the sex trade, everyone is messed up. Then you have the danger with clients, you get raped, you get ripped off, and that just adds to it – layers of trauma on top of something that was already terrible.”

Sarah eventually managed to come off heroin, but this was a recovery punctuated by ecstasy, cocaine, acid, and other drug use before she finally ended her relationship with all class As. This was a journey she made largely without the help of doctors.

“I still smoke cannabis because it helps my PTSD,” she added. "The state completely failed me. They did nothing for me then and now they seek to criminalise me because I’m smoking pot because it helps me with nightmares.”

She says making drugs illegal also pushes the stigma surrounding drug users, and in turn makes them more afraid to ask for help.

"We need people to be able to come forward and say ‘this happened to me’. I'm still in mental health services now and they are really stretched - I waited two years for cognitive analytic therapy."

A recent Home Office study suggested treating possession as a health issue rather than a criminal offence, as it is in other countries, could reduce death and infection rates. The report looked at models in countries such as Portugal, where the possession of small quantities of any drug has been decriminalised.

Release, a charity that provides advice and information to the public on drugs and drug law, says the success of decriminalisation initiatives such as that adopted by Portugal need to be properly considered, instead of being "blindly dismissed by the Government".

"Increasingly around the world we are seeing more liberal approaches being adopted by countries who rightly recognise drugs to be a health rather than a criminal issue, yet the UK remains woefully out of step on the issue," said project coordinator Edward Fox.

However, David Cameron has insisted evidence showed current legislation was working. “I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today, he said recently. “I’m a parent with three children – I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK and safe because, frankly, it isn’t.”

David Cameron and the Tories will place emphasis on the economy

Cameron's position was heavily criticised by MPs and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who urged the coalition government to go to war on drugs, not on the addicts, claiming: “If you are anti-drug you must be pro-reform".

“If possession of drugs is treated as a health matter rather a criminal one, the well-being of users dramatically increases,” he added.

Sir Roger Gale, a Conservative MP for Thanet North, is a vocal opponent of legalising drugs because of the health risks associated with drug use. “At a time when we are trying to encourage healthy living it seems to me the wrong path," he told Kent News. "What we want to do as a nation is encourage young people to enjoy life, and the most enjoyable life is a healthy one.”

There are, of course, arguments surrounding mental health too. A recent study found strong 'skunk-like' cannabis was linked to a quarter of new cases of psychosis, fuelling calls for officials to take a stronger stance against high potency cannabis.

Danny Kushlick, of the drug reform think tank Transform, believes that while drug use - alcohol and tobacco included - can be dangerous and unhealthy, some drug use can also be “beneficial”.

However, he said criminalisation of drugs adds a multitude of potential health risks in the way that they are produced and supplied.

“Legalisation, regulation and harm reduction are pragmatic policies that recognise that current users must be kept as safe and as healthy as is possible, whilst reducing access by the young and vulnerable,” he said.

For Mr Woods, the arguments against reforming drug laws are easily countered. "The main thing that prohibitionists come out with is ‘think of the children’ – well I would say the same thing. The only ID a street dealer wants to see is a £20 note."

*Sarah’s name has been changed in this article.

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