The evidence tells us to decriminalise drugs. But politicians will be guided by the flawed instincts of voters

Despite optimism over a more compassionate approach, many people continue to view problems with drugs as purely self-inflicted rather than a response to trauma or loss of hope

Ian Hamilton
Wednesday 23 October 2019 12:58 BST
Labour to ‘consider legalising all drugs’ including cocaine and heroin

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Drugs have been illegal for so long that it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like if they were no longer forbidden. Restricting access to drugs like cannabis, heroin or cocaine has been justified on the grounds that they are harmful and we need to be protected from ourselves. Unfortunately by any measure this has proved to be futile and fatal.

It is futile because millions of us every year break the law by sourcing and using these substances. It is fatal because we continue to see record numbers of people die due to drugs.

Our current approach doesn’t seem to help anyone, it doesn’t protect the teenager using ecstasy for the first time, which for some will prove to fatal due to the unknown strength of the pill they swallow. Equally, the policy doesn’t allow effective treatment for people who become dependent on opiates and require optimum doses of substitute drugs.

Those optimum doses can only be given in services that are adequately funded and resourced. It’s a tough call making the case for investment in services for people that have used “illicit” substances when there are other more “deserving” people in need of public services. Breaking the law adds to the perception that people don’t deserve a service.

The drug laws are not just ineffective in restricting access to drugs, which is their main policy aim, but they also compound the harm that drugs have the potential to cause. Whether that’s by not allowing drug testing at festivals so people know what’s in their drugs before they use them or by adding to the stigma felt by people who become dependent on drugs.

So it is time to imagine another way of managing drug use. That’s what today’s report by the Health and Social Care committee asks us to do.

The committee is made up of politicians from all tribes, having heard the evidence they are clear that radical change is needed. The report points to the economic, social and health failures of the current policy. The solution they suggest is that drugs should be decriminalised.

To be clear they are not suggesting a free for all, where anyone can get any drug, instead they point to countries that have adopted alternative regulatory frameworks for drugs, such as Portugal. Faced with similar problems to those we are witnessing in the UK, Portugal pivoted the drug policy focus from crime to health. Consequently, drug-related deaths fell and treatment uptake improved.

The hope of the committee is that replicating Portugal’s example, the UK will produce equally significant results. They are not the first to call out the failure in drug policy and make this suggestion but as they are part of the machinery of government, this call may be significant for policy decisions to come.

Influential as they are and compelling as the evidence is, on its own, it won’t be enough. None of us are rational creatures, and many people continue to view problems with drugs as purely self-inflicted rather than a response to trauma or loss of hope.

Those views matter as they are held by people who vote, so while evidence can influence a politician, that tends to be trumped by voters’ views, no matter how illogical they are. We have all the information we need, but we lack the compassion and the courage needed to implement policies that protect rather than harm.

Drug use is on the rise, drug-related deaths are setting new records, drugs are easier to access and becoming more potent. It’s impossible to conclude that our current path represents an effective policy. Frankly, we don’t need any more evidence or calls for a change in drug policy, we just need to find the compassion, find the courage, and get on and do it.

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