Drugs policy isn’t keeping up with the times

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

Richard Branson,Mike Trace
Friday 14 December 2012 19:47
Mexico says marijuana legalization could change anti-drug strategies
Mexico says marijuana legalization could change anti-drug strategies

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

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