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The UK government's war-on-drugs policy is out of touch and causing harm

While other countries around the world adopt progressive, health and recovery based drug policy, the UK is stuck in a dangerous past

  • Aneesa Ahmed
  • 7 January 2022

The UK is continuing the war-on-drugs while more progressive policy is being adopted around the world — an embarrassing and worrying move which has been cemented by the recent proposals made by Boris Johnson’s government, including stripping drug users of their passports and driving licenses.

Read this next: Boris Johnson proposes stripping drug users of their passports

As other countries focus on a progressive, health and recovery based approach — proven effective by Portugal which has seen overdose, HIV infection and drug-related crime rates plummet since decriminalising drugs in 2001 — the UK has not moved on from a Nixon-style war-on-drugs mindset even half a century on from the maligned Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. These new proposals continue the culture of demonisation and stigmatisation that is so intrinsically ingrained into society — a trend that needs to be broken before the damage is irreversible.

The government has suggested that it may introduce harsher, ‘crackdown’ style measures for recreational drug users that will target the middle classes. Under this new plan, police officers will be given the authority to search drug dealers' phones and call their clients with drug-related warnings in the hopes of scaring them into altering their ways. Other measures that have been proposed are removing passports and ID cards of those who are caught with drugs and expanding drug testing on arrest, alongside some more positive steps such as funding for treatment and recovery. The government argues that by targeting those who use drugs recreationally it will also be helping to eliminate gang crime, violence, county lines, death and addiction.

Read this next: How drugs won the war on drugs

No matter how well intentioned these plans are, they are ill-informed, outdated and are unproductive. Treating addiction requires a huge refurbishment of the way drugs are viewed in society and in health care and tackling gang crime requires tackling the overarching problem of socio-economic inequality; these proposed measures don’t do either of these things. This opinion is also held by Lord Falconer, Member of the House of Lords and former Chair of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. Speaking to Mixmag, he said that having a “crackdown approach” to drug use is “driving people away from getting help and into disastrous personal problems and in extreme cases death”.

“Taking passports away will do nothing to stop county lines, tackle drug deaths or help people struggling with addiction”, says Ant Lehane of UK based drug reform organisation Volteface. “Let's look at Portugal and emulate the model - funding for treatment, which diverts people from criminal justice and treats drugs as a health issue. Taking people's passports away is a frankly ludicrous idea cooked up without any evidence at all. It is tragic that the government either thinks that this will work, or that they think the public believes that it will work.”

Read this next: Sadiq Khan plans to decriminalise Class B drug use for young people in London

While the UK government continues to propose farcical ideas such as removing passports of users, smarter moves have been made by other countries around the world. New York has announced the establishment of supervised drug consumption rooms, Germany is looking likely to legalise cannabis, following the lead of numerous US states and Canada, and more than 30 nations have abolished criminal penalties for drug possession. All of these approaches set the precedent that drug use in itself is not something that should be demonised, and it acknowledges that it does happen within society. It also removes legal penalties which can often prevent people from getting the help that they need - an ongoing problem in the UK. It is shameful and upsetting that as the world begins to realise this, the UK is ideologically stuck in the past. Just this week a new Met Police street drug testing initiative sparked outrage this week when videos of were posted online — apparently designed to "protect women", it resulted in the arrest of a woman for class A drug possession.

The Telegraph reported this week that Sadiq Khan is planning to "begin decriminalising drugs" in London. While technically it is not ‘decriminalisation’, as all that the Mayor is planning to do is implement London’s first cannabis-diversion scheme in certain boroughs, this news is still enough to get some cogs turning. Diversion programmes are comparable to driving awareness classes in that they allow young individuals caught with cannabis to avoid facing criminal charges.

Sadiq Khan’s team told Mixmag: We know that we’ll never be able to simply arrest our way out of the problem, which is why we continue to work on schemes that provide young people with support and education, rather than simply putting them through the criminal justice system – with the aim of diverting them away from drug use and crime for good.” While this new move is welcome, it is not enough. It still places too much importance on policing and demonising, by painting out drugs as a problem that needs to be stamped out and therefore will likely further cause polarisation. As there is an emphasis on policing, this scheme will likely perpetuate racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system in London. Even if you are no more likely to possess an unlawful substance, you are four times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are Black than if you are White, so this scheme will likely demonise and stigmatise more young Black men.

Read this next: Do you have to do drugs to enjoy dance music?

Research has shown numerous times that a progressive approach which prioritises health, whereby drug use isn’t demonised, is what can productively and accurately start to tackle problems such as associated gang crime and addiction. Despite government proposals also stating that an aim to provide more funding to drug rehabilitation, treatment and recovery, this funding that will supposedly be pledged to services is only needed due to the constant cut of funding for recovery services from the government over the past 10 years. Additionally, the overall tone of the proposed ‘crackdown’ plans masks any positive impact they are trying to make in bettering services. This increase in funding is presented as a mere side-note, when it should be leading the argument.

The irony of this situation is that you would think ill-advised policy is made by those in power who are out of touch with contemporary recreational drug use — but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Recently it was reported that there were traces of cocaine found in the bathrooms of the Houses of Parliament. Boris Johnson himself said in a GQ interview interview in 2007 that he has tried cocaine at university. Michael Gove has said that he took drugs at “several occasions at social events” and Jeremy Hunt drank cannabis lassi while he was backpacking in India. Therefore it’s perhaps not a case of these politicians being out of touch - they’re just ignorant to their own privileges, inclined to look out for their own rather than the broader set of people they represent, and continue to prove why the public generally lack trust in them.

Read this next: Ecstasy island: How MDMA reached the UK in 1988

As 2022 begins, 51 years since the passing of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs act, it is urgent for the UK to catch up with the rest of the world. The current stance of demonisation and stigmatisation is not working, if it was working then we wouldn’t be needing to take further action in the contemporary age. The UK needs a culture shift in the way that we view drugs before we reach a point of no return and users and those involved in the trade continue to get harm due to the lack of legal protection they are given. Drugs have won the war-on-drugs and it’s time for a health-focused, progressive approach to be adopted.

Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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