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.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.