New figures show the UK's approach to tackling drugs is failing. Now let’s find a sensible way of dealing with the fact that people like getting high.
1.2 million. That’s the number of 16-24 year olds who’ve taken drugs. Not ever – this past year. Around 600,000 of them have taken drugs in the last month, according to new figures.
Taking drugs is, and will probably always be, part of youth culture. There’s no escaping it.
It’s not a major confession, but I’ve taken drugs. Obviously: there’s not a single young person I know who hasn’t.
All of those people have faced risks – not really knowing what they’re taking, who they’re buying from, where it came from, and whether it will be them or the middle-man spending a night in the cells if caught.
Of the wider public, over a third of 16-59 year olds admit to getting high at some point. That’s 11 million people. This issue is huge, normal, systemic. So the solution has to be policy-based.
Because this is a health crisis. Nearly 2,500 people died from illicit drug deaths in 2015 – and the stats aren’t getting any better. Given the scale of the epidemic, it’s astonishing to see the users – people most at risk – criminalised for it, rather than this being treated as an issue of the nation’s health: much like obesity, smoking or heavy drinking.
There are small signs of change in our approach. Six music festivals are or have used drugs testing this year. The understanding is clear: people will get high, so how do we make the environment for this as safe as possible?
And amid police cuts, that view appears to have been extended to cannabis use, with figures last year showing cannabis-related arrests fell by nearly 50% since 2010. That’s a start – you can’t lock 35% of the population up (or even the 2.2 million who’ve smoked weed in the past year), after all.
A spokesperson for the group Transform, which campaigns for reform, told me this is a failure of policy:
“What the government should be interested in is not use, but harm. We’ve had record levels of deaths for three years in a row, which is a clear failure of our drug laws.
They are calling on the government and the Labour party to get behind reforming our drugs laws.
“There are many ways to deal with drug use, but criminalisation isn’t it.”
One or two Labour MPs are speaking out, including Labour MP for Withington, Jeff Smith, who this month spoke passionately in Parliament about the need for a new approach, in a debate on the government’s very un-radical new drugs strategy (one which rejects the recommendations of its own official advisers – including decriminalising use and backing safer drug consumption rooms).
Jeff Smith MP raised the tragic case of 15-year-old Martha Fernback, from Oxford, who died in 2014 after taking 91 per cent-pure MDMA:
“Martha’s mum, Anne-Marie…now campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of ecstasy, among other drugs. Martha died because there was no controlling measures on the substance that killed her and no way for Martha to check the safety of the substance she was using. Martha was failed by our approach to drug policy.”
There’s a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to drugs policy. Mr Smith referred to cannabis a case in point:
“It is surely wrong that we criminalise people for using a substance less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol—a substance that the overwhelming majority of people find pleasant, relatively harm-free and even a rewarding experience to take.
“We have all-party parliamentary groups that extol the virtues of beer, wine and whisky, but when we talk about a substance that is less harmful than alcohol, we are not allowed to say that it can be a positive experience.”
That’s the simple truth. We have serious double-think when it comes to drugs – and it’s time to put it right.
It’s time for Labour to get on board for reform. The manifesto didn’t say a peep about the issue. But the record high scale of deaths show it’s time for a new approach – this can’t be ignored any longer.
It will take guts and bravery, but three things have to be demanded now: legalise, regulate, rehabilitate.
People will always take drugs – now let’s find a sensible way of dealing with that fact.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.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.