Strict drug legislation in the UK has failed for the past century – It’s time for a new approach

Deepening confusion, sensationalism and prohibition of drugs over the decades has coincided with an increased drug use

Jonny Winship
Sunday 09 September 2018 16:56
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It’s a popular modern-day conception that illegal drugs are criminalised to prevent addiction, to promote good health and help strive towards a civil society. Although, barring the past 100 years or so, drugs were once legal and saw very little restrictions on their sale. Recreational cocaine, cannabis and opiate use was not as widespread as it is today. This was restricted to small artistic circles and bohemians, with the fabled antics of opium dens permeating through fictitious tales from the likes of Oscar Wilde.

So how did we arrive at our modern-day paradoxical scenario, in which strict drug laws coincide with soaring numbers of recreational drug use, adulteration and addiction – not to mention the crime, poverty and high mortality rates. When did drugs get demonised? And why are these restrictions so severe that they stand in the way of the potential medical benefits – such like those of marijuana?

Drug use hasn’t always carried such a stigma and posed such a social problem. To jump back a few millennia, you would not find it uncommon for marijuana to be smoked during the Roman Empire. Combined revenues of opium contributed to 15 per cent of all tax collections in Rome – yet there was no requisite for the phrase “opium addict” in the Latin diction.

In the 1800s, Laudanum could be readily available without prescription, its use was famously advocated by Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and Keats. Queen Victoria was said to have used opium and Britain fought twice with China for control of opium trade during the Opium Wars – the British Empire was in fact the biggest drug dealer around during this time.

The use of cocaine was normalised in Sherlock Holmes, experimented with and recklessly popularised by Freud, forming the public conception that it was a drug used by intellectuals.

Cannabis use was particularly scarce, however it was incredibly popular throughout colonial India, so much so that the British imposed a large-scale study in response to concerns that the drug was sending many of the natives insane. However, the results of this study revealed that the drug was in fact harmless in moderation.

In America, drugs were stirring up a bad rep, paranoid and racist propaganda drew associations of drugs with minority groups: opium with the Chinese, cocaine with black people and marijuana with Mexicans – so much so that the spelling was changed from “marihuana” to the now popular spelling, so as to rhyme with Tijuana. Ripples of concern stirred in the UK too, with this imported transatlantic angst coinciding with media reports of use within groups of white women and “men of colour” in London. Cocaine use started to become ever more associated with self-indulgence and started filtering into the sex industry when brought in to London via cabaret shows.

War-time hysteria and panic for domestic security helped to stir these waves further. Concern grew that drug use among soldiers during the First World War was harming the war effort; alcohol, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines were available to soldiers, with Harrods even selling gift sets containing cocaine and opium described as “a welcome present to our friends at the front”. Stories of cocaine-smuggling to India and opium smuggling to the Far East using British ships, compounded exaggerated reports of their use among soldiers.

Amid a wartime panic, the government imposed the Defence of The Realm Act (Dora) which banned the sale of cocaine, opium and cannabis without prescription to troops. With this, drug policy in the UK was born. In 1920, following further imported international concern, there was a growing hunger in the media to create outrage and international treaty obligations; Britain passed the Dangerous Drug Act, restricting the supply of opium, cocaine, morphine and heroin without authorisation.

An amendment of this act to include cannabis was spearheaded by Egypt, which at the time relied heavily on cotton trade – which was threatened by hemp. They based their suggestion on claims that the drug resulted in widespread insanity – a claim as inaccurate then as it is now. Britain, however, was ambivalent towards the use of hash because there was little health or social concern regarding cannabis at home at the time. Still, the vote passed in Egypt’s favour (with UK abstaining), leading to the inclusion of cannabis in the amended 1928 Dangerous Drug Act.

Despite showing early success as a pain reliever, cannabis’s benefits were not well promoted by the pharmaceutical industry. It’s far more difficult to formulate into tablet or liquid than opium, and subsequently missed out on the medical appraise that blessed the opium formulations of heroin and morphine. William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon, who had invested heavily in wood pulp paper (another resource that was threatened by hemp materials), used his media empire to spread further panic amid reports that Mexican immigrants were using the drug and attacking white women.

Deepening confusion, sensationalism and prohibition of drugs grew over the remaining century and has coincided with an increased drug use; 8.5 percent of adults aged 16-59 in 2016-17 took an illicit drug. There is now a mountain of evidence which clearly shows that strict drug laws typically have little or no effect on lowering the volume of drug use and abuse. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco contribute indirectly to NHS spending, and subsequent treatment of the diseases associated with these drugs. The war on drugs costs the taxpayer and estimated £400 a year, imprisoning addicts deepens their poverty and social problems, and potent forms like crack cocaine and skunk are the results of drug cartels maximising their profits.

Drug deaths are the highest since 1993 when comparable records began, and hospital admissions for poisoning by illicit drugs are 40 per cent higher than 10 years ago.

It’s time to open an honest discussion around the harms of these drugs, accept that we have one of the worst drug problems in the world and take more progressive steps, or risk falling behind. Pragmatic solutions have led to rewarding results in Portugal; after decriminalising possession and consumption of drugs in 2001, the country has since seen drug related deaths reduced to three per million compared with the UK’s 40 per million, and have seen a dramatic decrease in overall drug addiction and associated crime. These solutions are also beginning to be followed by Switzerland and Norway.

For a nation that prides itself on progressive attitudes, how much further does our drug situation need to worsen before we accept our current model isn’t working? It’s high time that the government seriously considered a form of decriminalisation, and a shift towards further evidence-based harm reduction in addiction.

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