It’s time to think the unthinkable on illegal drugs

Brighton and Hove could become the first British city to provide consumption rooms for drug addicts. This should prompt a debate over whether prohibition is still the best way to reduce drug use.

Brighton and Hove could become the first city in Britain to offer consumption rooms that allow drug addicts to use illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.

The Independent Drugs Commission for Brighton and Hove has produced a report looking at drug use in the city (Brighton and Hove was at one time the UK’s drugs death capital), and has recommended that so-called “shooting galleries” be adopted which allow addicts to use illegal drugs more safely and without the risk of prosecution.

Decriminalised consumption rooms are already in use in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Australia.

Britain’s long slow journey away from prohibition continues. The question is: if consumption rooms prove successful in reducing drug deaths will they be considered in other cities? Or, more importantly, will this reignite the debate about prohibition – a policy even most opponents of full legalisation admit has failed?

Policy failure

In Britain, the consequences of prohibition can be seen on the pallid faces of addicts trying to make eye contact with shoppers on London’s streets. In his 2008 book Flat Earth News Nick Davies cited a confidential Downing Street report leaked to the press in 2005 which claimed that black market drug users were responsible for 85 per cent of shoplifting, between 70 and 80 per cent of burglaries and 54 per cent of robberies.

Inflated street prices mean addicts will often steal to fund their habit. In one of the many unintended consequences of prohibition, when the forces of law bring in a drugs haul they are inadvertently creating a shortage on the streets that will inflate prices further, along with local crime levels.

Many of Britain’s 300,000 heroin users suffer severe health problems, such as septicaemia, hepatitis, ruptured veins and the risk of overdosing. But almost all of the harmful effects of heroin are caused by toxic contaminants added by unregulated and unscrupulous street sellers. The respected Merck Health Journal is clear about the effect prohibition has on drug quality:

“Long-term effects of the opioids themselves are minimal; even decades of methadone use appear to be well tolerated physiologically, although some long-term opioid users experience chronic constipation, excessive sweating, peripheral edema, drowsiness, and decreased libido. However, many long-term users who inject opioids have adverse effects from contaminants (e.g., talc) and adulterants (e.g., non-prescription stimulant drugs); cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic damage from infections such as HIV infection and hepatitis B or C, which are spread by needle sharing and non-sterile injection techniques.”

For the most part (and perhaps understandably considering the likely media backlash), politicians tend to effortlessly cave in to tabloid hysteria on drugs rather than tackle the problem in a rational way.

In 2009 Professor David Nutt was sacked as chief drugs advisor by home secretary Alan Johnson after making the suggestion that drugs should be classified according to the evidence of the harm they cause. In the US, the discourse around prohibition is equally mired in unreason, with attitudes unlikely to change unless there is a spread of the violence that plagues Mexico across the border.

Drug use is already increasing

Opponents of legalisation enjoy evoking the possibility of increased drug use as a consequence of the legal availability of hard drugs. The likelihood of this happening, however, must be set against a backdrop of worsening drug conflict in the developing world and the unregulated and potentially lethal substances being peddled on British streets. ‘Hard-line’ policies have also had a negligible effect on the number of drug users worldwide, which continues to rise.

A 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put the total number of drug users in the world at 200 million, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the global population aged 15-64. Looking at the rates of hard drug use over time, the report said that “in…North America [and] Western Europe, abuse levels remained constant for opiates [and] in Europe cocaine use continues to expand.”

Most opponents of prohibition would probably refrain from claiming that legalisation would provide a definitive solution to the problem of drug abuse. The alternative, however – the status quo –  is probably even more grim.

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. 

One Response to “It’s time to think the unthinkable on illegal drugs”

  1. Martin Powell

    The first step towards an approach to drugs based on evidence of what works would be a comprehensive review assessing the costs and benefits of the current criminal justice led approach, and modeling alternatives including decriminalisation of personal possession, and models of strict legally regulated production and supply.

    Whether this should be a royal commission as backed by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the LibDems, or an other method is moot. More important given the socially unjust outcomes of the current approach from Brixton to Bogota (from racist arrest and imprisonment rates, to crime levels and harmful health outcomes impacting the poor disproportionately) is for Labour to support such review. Doing so would not require the party to back a particular policy, merely to say good public policy must be based on evidence, so without prejudging outcomes, let’s look at what could work better.

    With the UN just starting preparation for a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in early 2016, such a UK review would also enable our government to engage properly in a process that will play a major role in setting global drug policy for the next decade.

Leave a Reply