The war on drugs has gone too far

Iris Kaye-Smith, former OULC Co-Chair, argues that Labour cannot be scared into inaction over drug decriminalisation.

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been, by almost every conceivable criterion, a failure. This has been the consensus among British public health bodies for quite some time now. Every so often, there’ll be a new report, a new paper, advocating reform of the UK’s current policy, and there’ll be a small media stir, maybe a panel discussion on Radio 4, some Daily Mail pearl-clutching. But before long, the news cycle rolls inexorably on, and the much-needed debate about drug use in the UK, and how to minimise the harm it causes, is swept under the carpet.

We need to accept that what we have isn’t working. Under the current system, both possession and supply of drugs for non-medicinal use are criminal offences. In late 2016, it was argued in the British Medical Journal that these measures have had little impact on the supply and demand of drugs in the UK; they stimulate rather than curb the growth of organised crime networks, and they leave thousands of drug users vulnerable to overdose from unregulated and frequently adulterated substances. Indeed, they do more or less what the US’s experiment in banning alcohol in the 1920s did; the market was driven underground, rates of gang-related violent crime soared, and people were blinded, paralysed, and killed by illegally-distilled alcohol topped up with methanol. In hindsight, prohibition was a well-intentioned but misguided policy that caused more harm than it prevented. Perhaps our grandchildren will say the same of drug prohibition.

In March of this year, the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott declared that the war on drugs had ‘failed,’ yet flatly denied that a Labour government would consider legalising cannabis for recreational use. In doing so, the party missed an opportunity to shape the debate on this issue. This is one area in which the Green and Liberal Democrat parties have taken the lead, with both adopting decriminalisation policies and, more crucially, the principle that responsibility for the UK’s drug problem should be transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health. With Labour’s plans for radical reforms in the funding and organisation of our health services, this lack of interest in creating safe, legal avenues for dealing with addiction is strange.

Perhaps leading party figures (quite justifiably) fear that Corbyn’s embattled Labour will draw the ire of the socially conservative right-wing press if seen to be soft on drugs. If the coverage of similar policies is anything to go by, the legalisation of cannabis or other widely-used drugs is still perceived as a middle-class indulgence. Yet this is patently untrue; cannabis, it is often quipped, has long been de facto legal for its white, middle-class users. As has been shown time and time again, people from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds are still disproportionately more likely to be charged for drug possession, and if charged, more likely to be imprisoned. While we may theoretically be equal under the law, the institutional attitudes of the police and the judiciary have made these laws an instrument of race- and class-based oppression. If we are a party fighting for a fairer, more just society, where wealth and power are shared more equally, then how can we allow the inequitable prosecution of drug laws to go unchallenged?

There are no easy answers to the ethical problems of the drugs trade. Given its global nature, lasting solutions can only be found through international cooperation. But Labour needs, at the very least, to explore the options on decriminalisation in the UK. Currently, our drug laws cost us billions of pounds a year in prevention strategies that, in the last decade, have had a negligible impact on rates of drug use; they perpetuate institutionalised racism and classism, and most damningly of all, they contribute to countless preventable deaths that might have been avoided if the drugs sold on our streets could be tested and regulated. While it is difficult to envisage government control of the drugs trade any time in the near future, decriminalising possession of small quantities, such as Portugal did in 2001, and enabling adequately-funded health and social care services to take greater responsibility for tackling addiction, could be important steps towards bringing the problem under control.

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