The UK government's 'War on Drugs' approach is failing

Credit: West Midlands Police License:

The United Kingdom’s new 10-year drugs strategy, published on 6th December 2021, aims to ‘cut crime and save lives’ – a hopeful statement which sadly seems at odds with its contents.

For years, drug policy reform organisations have been advocating for policies which promote alternatives to prohibition, such as a move away from the criminalization of people who use drugs, and a move towards evidence-based models such as harm reduction. Whilst harm reduction measures are mentioned – the first time since the 1990s – activists are still left with a bitter taste in their mouth as the new drugs strategy (and the media attention surrounding it) doubles down on the failed and unevidenced ‘War on Drugs’ discourse perpetuated by its 2011 and 2017 counterparts.

The plan makes repeated references to the ‘wrong and unlawful’ use of illegal drugs. It is rather ironic, then, that on the day before the strategy’s publication, the Speaker of the House of Commons announced his intention to involve the Metropolitan Police to detect drug use which is thought to be “rife” in the corridors of power themselves, following the discovery of trace amounts of cocaine in 11 of 12 bathroom facilities sampled in Parliament. Let’s not forget that several senior Conservatives, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, have openly admitted using drugs themselves. These contradictions are alarming as, under their strategy, any such recreational use could result in the removal of passports and driving licenses of “middle-class” users of Class A drugs (of course, with zero clarity provided as to what metrics would be used to determine who would qualify under this description).

The attempt to reduce the consumption of recreational drugs through the expansion of drug testing on arrest, and subjecting people to tough, punitive sanctions for drug possession will not only do little, if anything, to deter use, but will also continue the perpetual marginalization of people who use drugs. Such sanctions will result in the increased likelihood of being caught up in the criminal justice system, leading to their further marginalization through reduced access to employment, housing and education. All this despite overwhelming evidence that many illicit drugs, such as MDMA and psilocybin, are no more dangerous than horse riding, and despite the fact that alcohol – a drug subject to government regulation and taxation – remains the most harmful.

It is encouraging, however, to see that £2.8 billion over three years will be ringfenced specifically for treatment and recovery, billed as the largest ever increase in funding for these services. The new strategy describes an increase in the use of evidence-based interventions such as long-acting buprenorphine prescriptions (a form of opioid agonist treatment) as well as increased availability of naloxone (to help prevent fatal opiate overdoses), needle and syringe programmes, and talking therapies for those in recovery. These are all extremely welcome provisions which, if implemented correctly, can help reduce overdose, transmission of blood-borne viruses, and signals a movement from punishment to healthcare. However, these plans sit uncomfortably at odds with plans to essentially force abstinence on prisoners who use opiates by abandoning prison methadone maintenance programmes – a cruel approach which brazenly ignores evidence and international standards for such programmes. One can now expect such patients to inevitably return to the unregulated black market to purchase heroin of unknown purity – including inside prisons themselves – which further increases the risk of overdose. This is a particularly questionable decision when the UK’s treatment sector knows from experience how methadone and other opioid agonist treatments help people, and which are endorsed heavily by the government’s own independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Regardless, the strategy’s inclusion of harm reduction provisions is a welcome step forward, particularly when the former 2017 strategy only mentioned harm reduction once in relation to smoking. Yet, it is unclear how these measures will be implemented in parallel with the plan’s punitive discourse of targeting people who use drugs. Instead, these harm reduction provisions appear like little more than lip service paid to Carol Black’s independent review which, despite advocating for the continuation of punitive criminal justice sanctions, also makes recommendations to “commission a full range of evidence-based harm reduction” initiatives.

Despite the well-known success of the decriminalisation model in Portugal, the UK drugs strategy chooses not to take this path, incorrectly asserting it would “leave criminals in control while risking an increase in drug use”. Yet, the evidence clearly shows that where the harm reduction measures described above are implemented in conjunction with decriminalisation of drugs, such increases do not occur.

Draconian law enforcement has historically disproportionately impacted those in poverty and minority ethnic groups. In a country where black people are more than eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, the government continues to ignore these enforcement disparities. Their explicit decision to continue with the evidence-free ‘War on Drugs’ discourse indicates a desire to maintain a criminal justice system rooted in racism, used as a tool to continue the ongoing oppression of marginalised groups whilst actively ignoring evidence offered by experts.

The UK still lags behind the global trend of reform that can be seen across Europe in countries such as Norway and Germany as well as in North America. Despite UN guidance to move away from repression and punishment of people who use drugs and to decriminalise drug use, the UK government has chosen to continue along a punitive path which has been shown time and again to exacerbate all the societal ills that criminal justice responses purport to address.

Daisy Bowdery is the Team Assistant at the International Drug Policy Consortium, and an International Working Group member at Youth RISE.


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

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