A Matter Of Substance

9th May 2014

These poppy heads, pretty as they are, once harvested and dried, will become heroin. Typically injected, snorted or smoked to produce a euphoric state, it’s highly addictive – and illegal. But might the end of the war on drugs be in sight? There's a lot of talk these days of moving towards decriminalisation, even legalisation. What would this mean in reality? In this piece, prepared before the death of Peaches Geldof was attributed to heroin, Jennifer Lipman investigates.

“Drug use,” muses Harry Shapiro, Drugscope’s information director. “It’s one of those strange subjects – there’s so much symbolism. People see it as crossing a line.”

That’s to put it lightly. The mere mention of the subject sends our media into frenzy of moral outrage. ‘Britain’s high streets could become ‘mini Amsterdams’,’ screamed the Telegraph, after Home Office Minister Norman Baker suggested licensing reforms earlier this year.

What the coverage generally neglects to mention is that UK drug use is at an almost 20-year low, and that the public are often far more relaxed about the rules: one recent poll found that 53% of people want cannabis decriminalised or legalised, and two-thirds want a full review of all policy options. Even MPs agree; 77% of parliamentarians asked by the UK Drug Policy Commission responded that current drug policy is not effective.

Still, even if the picture is not as dire as the newspapers might suggest, plenty of people are still taking drugs, and in doing so, engaging in illegal activity. Added to which is the new and less easily quantifiable problem of legal highs, excluded from most official figures, taken mainly by the young and often bought online. “How big that market’s going to get is anyone’s guess,” says Shapiro.

Drug use may be down, but it’s not out, which begs the question: nearly a century after Britain passed the Dangerous Drugs Act and more than 40 years after we joined the global War on Drugs with the Misuse of Drugs Act, is it time for a rethink? Should the UK be looking at decriminalising, or even legalising, illicit substances?

It’s not as preposterous as it sounds. “Things are changing round the world,” explains Shapiro. “International drug policy was once driven by the Americans, who have always been cheerleaders for a hardline, enforcement-led approach. That consensus is breaking down.”

Post 9/11, America’s foreign policy focus moved from destroying coca crops in Colombia to counter-terrorism. And without them leading the ‘Just say No’ charge, other countries have been shifting strategy. Uruguay recently legalised cannabis, and the same has even happened on US soil in Washington State and Colorado. Nowadays, Switzerland prescribes heroin for users, while in Portugal the personal use and possession of heroin, cocaine, LSD and other substances was decriminalised more than a decade ago, with supporters arguing that use has since fallen.

It’s the latter that many in the UK drug policy arena support. The UK compares well to other countries in terms of offering a comprehensive harm reduction strategy, points out Danny Kushlick from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. The problem is that we treat drugs “overwhelmingly as a criminal justice issue”, and lock up enormous numbers of people with drug problems.

“The great majority of young people use drugs without any problem, and are not a burden to society… therefore why are we threatening them with a criminal record?” asks Sue Pryce, author of Fixing Drugs: The Politics of Drug Prohibition, pointing out that doing so invariably makes users unemployable, and may also discourage them from seeking help. Some might be put off for that reason, she says, but, ultimately, “people who want to use drugs are going to use them.”

“It’s a harm reduction argument,” she explains. “It’s saying what is the harm caused by drugs and one of those harms is criminalising lots of young people.” She acknowledges, however, that decriminalisation would do nothing to solve the supply problem. “Drugs would still be supplied by criminal gangs further up the chain, so you still wouldn’t know the purity or strength of the drugs.”

In any case, others question whether decriminalisation is actually necessary. Shapiro takes issue with claims that the UK has the “draconian drug policy” to necessitate this, highlighting high spending on treatment, and the fact that possession of cannabis isn’t seen as a major policing priority.

“The penalties are quite harsh on paper,” he says. “But unlike in America, very very few people go to prison these days because of a simple drug possession charge, unless they are a multiple offender or there are some other mitigating circumstances.”

Still, there are questions over where this supposedly pragmatic approach has got us. Drugs haven’t become extinct, after all. “We have sort of by default got used to this idea of clamping down, but the law has its limits and we’ve reached them,” argues Jeremy Sare of the Angelus Foundation. “Clearly, the cycle of banning is not having a deterrent effect.” In June, he points out, the drug Benzo Fury was banned. Within just two weeks new equivalent stimulants were flooding the market.

The Angelus Foundation calls for a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act and a fundamental reassessment of the wider system of prohibition. Others go further, arguing that it is drug policy, rather than the pharmacology of the drugs themselves, that puts people in danger.

They highlight the failure of the prohibition of alcohol in the US, which enriched gangsters and simply sent boozing underground, and say that a legalised drugs system would be better for all involved. Better for Governments, who could save on criminal justice and tax a hugely profitable commodity. Better for supplier countries like Mexico and Bolivia, which could monetise their most lucrative cash crop and put the money into economic development. And, crucially, better for safety, since in a regulated system users could at least know what they were taking, rather than being forced to trust their dealer’s word.

“It is counter intuitive, but legalising drugs puts them under genuine control,” says Kushlick. “No drug is made safer left in the hands of organised criminals.” His organisation backs age-based legal regulation, with the most risky products, such as heroin, only available from doctors, and moderately risky drugs, such as cocaine, sold by pharmacists.

Others emphasise the fact that prohibition often does the one thing it’s designed not to: “makes drugs attractive,” explains Pryce. But, she admits it’s all speculative: the comparison with alcohol or tobacco only goes so far, and the truth is, nobody has any idea whether if drugs were legal, use would suddenly soar.

“I think the arguments are a bit simplistic,” says Shapiro. “The assumption is that organised crime would just simply disappear, and the trade is too lucrative for that.” And also, he adds, you’ve got to balance the savings with the costs of establishing a new regulatory system, with testing centres, a licensing structure and inspectors.

“In these financial times, what Government is going to invest in this in order for people to do something the Government doesn’t want them to do in the first place?” he asks. “And if you are going to have licensed drugs that are safe, are they going to have the effect that people want? If all alcohol was like alcohol-free lager to make it safer, who would buy it?”

In any case, he doesn’t see it happening here in the UK. “By and large, we are a fairly ‘small c conservative’ country,” he says. “The papers can write editorials until they’re blue in the face on reform, but this country hasn’t reached any kind of tipping point.”

With an election imminent, and the economy still shaky, he’s probably right: it’s hard to imagine any party going out on a limb for a change in drug law. Partly, says Sare, that’s because of the way the debate is framed, whereby having a normal conversation about reform becomes nigh on impossible. Our tabloids are particularly aggressive, and largely refuse to accept that the public might want to see a change, added to which we exaggerate the scale of the issue, making it difficult for politicians reach for the necessary courage. “People talk about the war on drugs,” he sighs. “They have that in Mexico – we have a system that needs reform.”

Still, he does detect a shift: there are now many more well-respected experts, academics and policemen willing to argue back when the newspapers try to portray those who support reform as radical extremists.

Politically, too, there are hints of things moving. In late 2012, the Home Affairs Committee called for a Royal Commission to be established to look at the alternatives to Britain’s drug laws. Only this year Nick Clegg acknowledged publicly that the war on drugs is “unwinnable” and called for a rethink. Crucially, it no longer seems to be political suicide to support reform.

“We’ve got a generation in politics now who used drugs when they were at university,” points out Pryce. And the public don’t seem to care; a recent survey found voters were significantly more concerned about politicians who’d never held a ‘real job’ than those who once took cocaine or heroin.

If and when change comes, it’s likely to be gradual. At this stage, perhaps the best hope is for a grown-up conversation about drugs, including the risks, and the fact that not every drug user is an addict putting their life at risk.

Pryce’s assessment is that the UK will eventually move to decriminalisation, as more and more European countries do so. “Just as a climate of opinion moved towards prohibition at the end of the last century, now we’ve got a climate of opinion moving away from this whole idea of war on drugs,“ she says.

“Although,” she adds wryly, “Knowing Britain, we’ll have some sort of big commission that’ll cost a fortune – and come out with the same answer.” For those who think the system is broken, it will be money well spent.

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