Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws

The 'War on Drugs' has been lost with the criminalization of thousands of users and the financial ascension of global crime syndicates. The Coalition must consider a new approach.

The UK’s ‘War on Drugs’ has been resoundingly lost. It’s only demonstrable results have been the criminalization of thousands of users who are badly in need of better medical help, and the financial ascension of global crime syndicates. The Coalition government must consider a new approach.

Calls for a new approach to UK drug policy have been growing in recent weeks. The Observer’s recent editorial remarked – tongue firmly in cheek – that:

“If the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to anyone who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by murderous criminal gangs, the current arrangements are working well.”

In July, Stephen Rolles – senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation – produced a detailed study in which he drew attention to a growing consensus within the drug field:

The prohibition on production, supply, and use of certain drugs has not only failed to deliver its intended goals but has been counterproductive. Evidence is mounting that this policy has not only exacerbated many public health problems… but has created a much larger set of secondary harms associated with the criminal market.

“These now include vast networks of organised crime, endemic violence related to the drug market, corruption of law enforcement and governments, militarised crop eradication programmes… and funding for terrorism and insurgency.”

Rolles’s meticulous study was based on evidence provided by a range of UK committees and think-tanks, as well as recent UN reports. Its demand for the debate on drug legislation to move beyond “populist politics and tabloid headlines” and onto a consideration of “a risk guided regulatory approach” which would provide “a more pragmatic public health model” and transform “a proportion of existing criminal profits into legitimate tax revenue” could not have been more clearly presented.

Indeed, just this week, the study was praised by Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, who agreed that moving from prohibition towards regulation and taxation would “drastically reduce crime and improve health.

In light of such evidence, it would appear that common sense simply demands that the coalition government rethink UK drug policy. Even if you ignore the fact that alcohol and tobacco together account for more deaths than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder and suicide combined, all the while remaining perfectly legal. And even if you ignore the fact that the UK has completey failed to combat the health issues related to drug addiction, the financial implications of drug policy reform demand consideration.

A study undertaken by Transform in 2004 revealed that a regulatory approach to drug policy would have produced “a net saving to tax payers of up to £13.943billion”. The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit found that taxation on current levels of imported drugs would bring in anywhere between £3.4billion and £6.4billion in extra tax revenue per year.

Meanwhile, evidence from Portugal and the Netherlands reveals clearly that the decriminalisation of drugs has had very few adverse effects. On the contrary; in both countries, the amount of drug-related infections and deaths has plummeted, and overall usage has declined among teenagers. In Portugal, a detailed study concluded that:

“None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization have come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realised.”

Facts such as these are irrefutable, and for a government that is so hell-bent on saving every last penny, cannot be ignored. When David Cameron (with the aid of his running mate, The Sun) is so desperate to claw back £1.5billion from “benefit scroungers,” it would be sheer stupidity for him not to examine the possibility of legislative reform – the blueprint for which already exists – that could potentially save ten times that amount of public funds, and which has the backing of numerous authoritative voices.

A major review of drug policy is due in December of this year. At a time when other European countries are already reaping the benefits of a regulatory approach, Latin American states such as Mexico are beginning to move in a similar direction, and even American legislatures are considering legalising cannabis, it would be foolish for the UK not to seriously look at the option of decriminalization.

It is high time that Cameron and the rest of the coalition recognised that the ‘War on Drugs’ has been lost, and that a new approach is desperately needed. If this government is truly concerned with the economic and medical health of this nation, it will take steps to reform our drug laws. Rational science and simple common sense demand it.

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49 Responses to “Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws”

  1. Darren Bridgman

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws:

  2. Kelly

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws:

  3. Jonathan Holt

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws

  4. Mind In Flux

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws:

  5. Matt Black

    RT see it every day. #legalisation not #decriminalisation is the key. @leftfootfwd: reformation of UK drug laws:

  6. Duncan Stott

    An excellent overview of recent political developments.

    In what way is “A major review of drug policy is due in December of this year”? I wasn’t aware of this.

  7. Kevin Ward

    Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws (via @leftfootfwd) Last 5 home secretaries made this very difficult…

  8. Matthew Owen

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws:

  9. Matt Owen


    Cheers. Funny you asked that, because I’ve been spending the whole afternoon trying to clarify the details of it. I’ve seen it mentioned in a few places (to be specific, the review is ongoing, but the results will be announced and any action as a result of the review will be taken in December), including by the BBC’s medical correspondent, here; However, everyone I email, including the UKDPC, points me back to another vague reference. To answer your question, i’m not exactly sure, but it is going on, and come December, some decisions will have to be made! Sorry i couldn’t be more specific.

  10. Tam Chandler

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws:

  11. Forlornehope

    There was a retired plod on the Today programme the other morning trotting out the usual arguments for the status quo. It just reinforced the message that £1.5 billion a year spent in the UK on “the war on drugs” is a lot of jobs and a lot of vested interests. The poor guy just wanted to keep his old mates in their jobs. Far better to promote useful industry, such as farming cannabis and paying tax on it!

  12. Shamik Das

    Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws: argues @Matt0wen on @leftfootfwd

  13. Matt Owen

    Forlornehope – Try £16 billion a year! But yeah, you’re right. Lots of establishment dinosaurs trotting out the usual (long-since-proved-wrong) arguments.

  14. Mr Jabberwock

    Something must be wrong – what is the Editor doing – letting through an excellent article that I agree with.

  15. Kevin

    Politicians never listen to history, the effects of prohibition in America resulted in large numbers of rival gangs fighting for control of the illegal alcohol trade. I see no difference in what happens in today’s inner cities with drugs the sooner they legalise ALL drugs the sooner we can tackle the problem of addiction in an open adult way rather than skulking in back alleys with criminals in control.

  16. captain swing

    This is a re-post of something I posted on ‘Left Outside’ blog on 11 August. I would also point out that Transform Drug Policy Foundation is a pressure group for legalising drugs, nothing wrong with that and I agree with much of what they say, I just think it needs pointing out.

    OK. The UK unilaterally legalises drugs.

    We would be in breach of UN resolutions. This may sound like a mere technicality, but the diplomatic fall out would be huge, particularly from countries which take a hardline on drugs like America and France. The EU would also be furious.

    Even a small, modest step like the Dutch decriminalising (it’s not legalisation like some people think) small amounts of cannabis in ‘coffe houses’ led to diplomatic fall out from America and France. The French even would not fully implement the Schengen agrement with Belgium because of Holland’s drug policy.

    The repercussions would probably cause problems for Britons travelling to some countries, at the least.

    There would also be big problems with drug tourists, it always happens. Any city, region or country that has decriminalised drugs to some extent gets drug tourists. Full on legalisation would lead to a massive influx.

    As other countries would not have legalised drugs you would still “..get more or less the same number of casualties because most casualties are caused by production and distribution not use.”

    Plus to parapharse, drug possession, trafficking and production would remain illegal in dozens of countries and 10/100s million of people would be screwed. Plus the profits in these would remain criminal rather than legitimate.

    Drug legalisation would only work if it was introduced internationally in a coordianted way.

    If we were to implement it unilaterally there would be very big problems.

    And I won’t even go into the the difficulties of retailing drugs.

    Finally, the reason GPs would not want to return to the ‘British System’ and prescribe heroin and cocaine is because they don’t want to.

    They complain about becoming “legal drug dealers” and it going against their Hippocratic oath, the first part of which say “first do no harm”. Doctors also prescribe drugs for therapeutic reasons not so the patient can get stoned (though I could name a few private doctors who do not take this view if money is offered), this is why methadone is prescribed.

    When the British System was in operation the number of people using it was under 2000, the number of problem drug users in the UK now is well over 200,000. The drug scene is very different now,that’s why I suggested ‘drugists’.

    There is also what you might call an “establishment” of doctors who treat problem drug users. Nearly all of them oppose the prescribing of heroin, and will only prescribe methadone because prescribing it is fairly easy, cheap and, crucially, unlike heroin it does not give you a buzz. There is no substitute drug for cocaine users.

    I am not taking some hardline of drugs here. I wish cocaine users would realise the misery they are supporting when they snort a line.

    I am an unaligned leftie (I haven’t voted for Labour since John Smith died) and often when I propose something even vaugely socialistic I am met with responses (even on some left blogs) of “not being realistic”, “the electorate will never support that” etc etc etc.

    But one thing I am certain of is that legalisation of drugs is not realistic and the electorate will never support it in the forseable future. Mention legalisation of drugs to to nearly anyone in drugs policy or research fields and they will just say “that’s not going to happen”. It’s dismissed. That is why I made the decriminalisation and other proposals in my original post, they are practical, they could happen.

    Legalisation of drug would only work if all major countries did it. That is not going to happen.

  17. Ash

    “alcohol and tobacco together account for more deaths than AIDS, legal drugs, illegal drugs, road accidents, murder and suicide combined, all the while remaining perfectly legal”

    I struggle to see how this observation supports the case for legalizing or decriminalizing substances which are comparable to alcohol and tobacco in terms of health risks, addictiveness and violence- and accident-related intoxicating effects. Prima facie, in fact, it surely supports the case for the criminalization of alcohol and tobacco (since very plausibly, the reason that heroin and cocaine cause fewer deaths than alcohol and tobacco is precisely that they are illegal while alcohol and tobacco are not).

    (I’m not actually suggesting alcohol and tobacco should be criminalized, just noting what looks to me like a faulty bit of reasoning. Someone who thinks that more drugs should be legal surely thinks so *in spite of* the fact that already-legal drugs do so much harm, not *because* of that fact.)

  18. Matt Owen

    Ash – I take your point, and it’s a good one. I guess what that quote was trying to say was ‘we already have legalized drugs in heavy circulation, which do far more damage than that done by all illegal drugs combined’. As in, the argument I’m presenting for decriminalizing drugs isn’t the only one; there’s the ‘two of the most harmful drugs on the planet are already decriminalized, why not decriminalize the rest as well?’ line. You’re probably right though, I’ve conflated two different arguments, and in a sense this undermines the point I’m making. Hope you enjoyed the piece in spite of this.

    captain swing – Thanks for the lengthy response. You make some good points, and there are certainly arguments against the ideas I put forward. I guess, in brief, I would say that the “drug legalisation would only work if it was introduced internationally in a co-ordinated way” argument might have some merit, but it’s a terribly defeatist one. As in, saying that ‘no-one else is going to enact positive change so we shouldn’t bother either’ will ensure that we never get anywhere. It’s the same attitude that has ensured such sluggish progress on climate change. Maybe there would be political fallout to reform of UK drug laws, who knows, but to be honest the welfare of thousands of people matters more to me than whether or not the French or the Americans get grumpy. Portugal and Holland’s approaches have overwhelmingly benefited their citizens (just read the studies I cite), and neither of them have been booted out of the EU. A few European diplomats getting angry is not enough of a reason, for me, to not enact reform that would improve the health of both our economy and our citizenry.

    As for the medical argument; I would say that my Dad works in an A+E department, and the amount of awful injuries and situations he encounters as a result of drug-related violence shocks and dismays him. I am not naive enough to think that legalizing weed will stop people fighting, but it is simply a fact that the current system of prohibition benefits criminal gangs and sends many young people into emergency wards as a result of drug-related violence. If this can be reduced, it’s a good thing. I don’t think the argument that those in the medical profession would oppose such a move is nearly as clear-cut as you make out: If doctors are averse to the idea of handing out drugs to people, I might ask why they ever though medicine was the right profession for them in the first place.

    I’m also not sure how you’re so convinced that “the electorate will never support it in the foreseeable future.” Everyone I have ever spoken to, when presented with the arguments, supports the idea to some degree.

  19. Mr. Sensible

    I’m afraid I get a bit annoyed at reading this sort of thing.

    I believe in some countries these drugs are proscribed. I do not want to see these drugs proscribed on the NHS for certain; I would rather the NHS treated people rather than kept their habbit going.

    They debated this on the radio, and 1 person said that, even if the drugs were to be regulated, is there not a risk that if the price were too high, users would just go back to their former friends anyway?

    And if what Ash says is true, then there has to be a risk that more people would start taking these substances as a result, with associated increases in health problems.

    In short, I am completely opposed to this.

  20. Ash

    Matt – thanks for separating out the two arguments at work here. Yes, some people do put forward the “‘two of the most harmful drugs on the planet are already decriminalized, why not decriminalize the rest as well?’” argument, so I guess I’m wrong – there *are* in fact people who believe more drugs should be legal precisely because already-legal drugs do so much harm. But the argument is crazy; it’s about as persuasive as ‘two heavily-polluting power stations have already been approved, why not approve a load more?’

    Anyway, yes, I did enjoy the article. This is an issue where I find myself genuinely torn. I can see that there’s a case for decriminalizing drugs; but I also can’t help thinking that the best evidence we have for the long-term effects of decriminalizing harmful substances comes from our (negative)experience with alcohol and tobacco. I suppose the starting point for a pro-decriminalization and regulation argument is that both the full-legality (alcohol and tobacco) approach and the illegality (heroin and cocaine)approach have been disastrous, and that decriminalization would avoid the pitfalls of both.

  21. Lewis Atkinson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws: <Good to see real debate about drugs policy recently

  22. Matt Owen

    Mr. Sensible – I can’t help but feel that you’re completely missing the point: People will continue their habit regardless of what the law states. If people want to take drugs, they will. This can either be done in a more educated, safer, cleaner manner, with an emphasis on reducing dependency – in other words, with the help of medical bodies like the NHS – or it can be done in secret, in a manner that results in massive amounts of infection and death and prison time, while gangsters get rich. Okay? The NHS *does* treat treat drug addicts, and unsurprisingly their habit doesn’t go away. Basically, we can either send people to prison and make criminals rich, at a massive cost to ourselves, or we can put a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and negating health risks, at a benefit to our economy.

    Your question about regulated drugs being priced-out is something of a non-issue. The legal retail of drugs would be done in a way that illegal markets could never, ever hope to compete with. Bootleggers only got rich under prohibition. Do you find any people in back-alleys trying to flog you cheap vodka nowadays?

    And if you actually *look* at the evidence I provide links to in the article, you will see that in countries where decriminalization has been implemented, considerably less people abuse substances. That’s an empirical fact. So again, you’ve raised a complete non-issue.

    Apologies if I sound like I’m being rude, but to be frank you epitomize the sort of person who holds back this important debate without having any sort of a hold on the actual facts and figures because you oppose the de-regulation drugs on some sort of panicked moral level.

  23. Diana Owen

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws

  24. Matt Owen

    Ash – Yeah, you’re right, the “‘two of the most harmful drugs on the planet are already decriminalized, why not decriminalize the rest as well?’” argument is, in one sense, a complete fallacy, as you say. But I think the issue is one of legal consistency. Right now, power stations which decimate the environment are legal, and ones that puff out a bit of smoke are illegal. It simply seems absurd for drugs which are massively harmful to be legal and ones that are far less harmful to be illegal. They should probably either *all* be legal, or *all* be illegal, strictly speaking.

    I agree that the long-term effects of decriminalizing harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco don’t exactly fill one with hope, but I think the whole picture shows that, very simply speaking, people will take drugs if they want them, and we can’t stop them, however hard we try. So let’s accept that, and react to it in a way which is healthier for more or less everyone concerned.

  25. Ending the War « Matt Owen

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  26. Rachel Cockett

    Common sense is never in charge. Shame. @DianaJOwen RT @leftfootfwd Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws

  27. captain swing

    Matt Owen

    Portugal and Holland have decriminalised drugs to some extent, they have not legalised them.

    And the diplomatic fall out if the UK unilaterally legalised drugs would be more than them “get(ting) grumpy”. It is quite possible that UK citizens would be prohibited entry to the USA until we reversed the policy.

    No doubt many people in the electorate do say they support legalisation, they also say they support higher taxes and more public spending till they get in the ballot box.

    I am not arguing for the war on drugs, or greater criminalisation, I am arguing for more decriminalisation and harm reduction measures, including the prescription by specialist pharmacists of heroin and cocaine to problem drug users.

    If you think legalisation is on the political agenda right now then so is the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

  28. Matt Owen

    captain swing

    Decriminalised/legalised – I’m not going to debate semantics with you. Certain drug-related actions that were once illegal in Portugal and Holland are now legal. Some (such as trafficking) remain, understandably, illegal.

    What is or isn’t on the political agenda is not my place to say – I am merely expressing an argument. Although I’m not sure anyone has the almost total understanding of the public and political mindset that you claim to, I don’t disagree that the sort of measures I’m advocating are probably some way off. However, I don’t believe that means they shouldn’t be talked about.

    One thing I would question is the idea that “UK citizens would be prohibited entry to the USA” if any sort of legalisation of drugs occurred. To be honest, that seems absolutely absurd. I’m ready to be proved wrong though – do you have any evidence/sources to back this up?

  29. Anon E Mouse

    Matt Owen – This is a good article but will not help your cause I fear. This country should legalise every single drug that is sold illegally and immediately stop the dealers and the crime that accompany the activity.

    When a new drug comes to market it should be copied and sold in chemists with a non disclaimer in case of harm.

    People take drugs for various reasons and people are not all like Cameron with his cocaine and Obama and Clinton with their cannabis taken for recreational purposes.

    Many take these drugs as a release from the horrible lives they lead and Mr.Sensible and his privileged cohorts should actually think of others for once instead of trotting out the usual Labour control freak police state stuff about drugs.

    You will never stop people taking drugs regardless of how many stupid prison sentences governments impose. With luck the progressive government we now have may actually wake up and realise this but I think they will be bone headed as the last bunch and nothing will change.

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  31. Chloe Forbes

    RT @leftfootfwd: Common sense demands reformation of UK drug laws

  32. Mr. Sensible

    You’re not at all being rude, Matt. Each of us is entitled to our own opinion.

    I actually agree that treatment is important, but I just do not agree with you on this.

    But it is good we can have the debate.

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  42. Matthew Evans

    Where this country of ours should be heading:

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