Independent Report Suggests Radical Changes to UK Drug Policy

A report published by independent think tank the UK Drug Policy Commission has called for reforms to legislation on illegal drugs.

A report published by independent think tank the UK Drug Policy Commission has called for reforms to legislation on illegal drugs. The report, entitled “A Fresh Approach to Drugs” recommends a rethink of the stance on minor drugs offences, as the report estimates tackling illicit drug use costs the public £3bn each year.
The 158 page report, submitted to the Home Office on October 14th examines the current state of UK Drug Policy, questioning the success of the Government’s strategy on drugs, stating “The way the UK makes and implements drug policy may mean policy is not cost effective and does not fully address the problem.” The report suggests reform to current legislation which harshly penalises those caught in possession of drugs, arguing that “For most people, illicit drug use is something that happens in their teenage years or young adulthood. As they grow up they stop using, largely without any problems.”
The research was supported by data gained during their six year study, which estimates that there are 379,000 drug users in the UK – 9 in every 1000 people, on average. This average rises dramatically in the 24-35 age group, going up to 17 in every 1000. This profoundly brings the effectiveness of policing drugs into question, as in spite of this enormous figure, there are only 42,000 prosecutions for drug offences a year. The report explains; “With some 42,000 people in England & Wales sentenced annually for drug possession offences and about 160,000 given cannabis warnings, this amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution and courts.”
Besides this, the report argues a more lenient approach on the penalties for drug users – for civic as well as economic reasons. Arguing that while no illegal drug should be in any way legalised, the report suggests that individuals who behave responsibly shouldn’t be targeted for prosecution, while on the other hand it outlines a new stance on handling “problem drug users” – urging that criminal justice should be more focused on recovery rather than punishment, as well as “tackling stigma towards people with drugs problems and their families, with the aim of encouraging social reintegration.”
Objectively, the report argues that “debates about drug policy need agreement on goals, which can be hard, but also more realism about what will achieve those goals effectively.” In short, the report makes the realist statement that drug use in the UK is common, and this cannot be stopped, although this might not necessarily be a disaster for society. Increasingly, studies have shown that the majority of drug users are happy, healthy young people, who do not succumb to excess or addiction, and prohibition in the past has never conclusively proved to be a good public policy. It is possible that criminalising ordinary citizens because of their tendency to engage in drug use might create more problems than it solves, particularly in an age of economic recession.
However, the dangers of drug use and the social problems it causes internationally are not ignored. Most notably, it mentions that in Mexico, between January and September of 2011, nearly 13,000 people were killed by organised crime, funded by the sale of cocaine and crystal meth to the American and European market. Conversely, government intervention into the drug trade could, in theory severely harm organised crime, the same way that Al Capone’s empire crumbled at the end of prohibition.
In spite of seemingly sound arguments, however, the report has been ignored by the Home Office so far – a spokesperson stating “While the Government welcomes the UKDPC’s contribution to the drugs debate, we remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs – outlined in our drugs strategy – is the right one.” This is not the first time that official reports favourable of a change in drug policy have been ignored. Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was sacked in 2009 for suggesting that government policy on drugs was too harsh.
This was yet another contribution to a political culture that ostracises rational, evidenced argument in the drugs debate, very often because politicians are afraid to waver on the “tough on drugs” platform that so many are elected on. Therefore, in the current political climate, it could be argued that it is highly unlikely the drugs debate can come anywhere close to fair and balanced – and certainly not while harsh stigma against drugs and drug users from a political system that will not listen remains constant.
“A Fresh Approach to Drugs” is the final report of the UKDPC, which intends to end its six year investigation into UK Drug Culture this December. The investigation was funded over the years primarily by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The Home Office and the Scottish Drugs Recovery Consortium. The full report is available online at www.ukdpc.org.uk.

Chris McSweeney