13 August 2018

It’s time for Britain to follow Europe’s lead on drug reform


There were 3,756 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales last year. Many of them could have been prevented had Britain passed drug policy reforms already carried out in other European states.

Manchester faces a “zombie apocalypse” related to Spice. This is a problem of the government’s own making. The Psychoactive Substances Act – a law so widely drawn it had to specifically exclude food and drink from being banned – pushed the trade in new psychoactive substances further underground. Good news for drug dealers, not so great news for charities working with drug users.

Portugal is one country that has seen a decrease in drug deaths. It has done so by refocusing its efforts on treatment and support for users, while targeting law enforcement on gangs and dealers. Meanwhile, in the UK, Glasgow is struggling to convince the government to allow it to open a Drug Consumption Room and provide Heroin Assisted Treatment.

These have been proven to be effective in improving public health and public order in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands by targeting the most high-risk drug users. Such services can help these people engage with health and drug addiction services, while reducing the costs arising from such addictions to the public purse.

Yet the Government persists with the tired argument that supporting such innovative solutions would be tantamount to supporting drug use. Drug users, who have always existed and always will, are the ones who would be actually be benefiting from the reforms. It’s time we left puritanical, judgemental rhetoric behind and focused on what’s worked in other countries.

The government should, at the very least, decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use. This has been found to free up resources for use in other areas – such as drug addiction services and anti-trafficking efforts. Ending the criminalisation of drug possession would also help fix racial inequalities in the judicial system, with black people being disproportionately stopped and searched on suspicion of drug offences.

It’s time for a much more ambitious plan: a Royal Commission on British drug policy reform. The issue is so wide ranging – cutting across healthcare, prisons, local government, the third sector, and the criminal justice system and beyond. A Parliamentary investigation would involve an unwieldy number of committees and different actors, and indeed may not reach a conclusion by the end of the Parliament.

A Royal Commission would have the time and capacity to analyse all relevant aspects of the issue, without becoming bogged down in the kind of political dogma that has led the War on Drugs to continue so far past its sell-by date. It could examine the evidence and make recommendations based on where it leads, without fear or favour, and look at the successful radical reforms being introduced elsewhere in the world.

After all, the problem with the Psychoactive Substances Act was that it pushed a previously legal trade underground where it could no longer be regulated and monitored. Heroin Assisted Treatment relies on prescription of synthetic heroin by doctors, avoiding the unknown substances available on the illegal markets. An Australian study of music festival pill testing found a ‘ketamine’ pill that was partially an antihistamine, and a ‘speed’ pill that was actually N-Ethylpentylone: a drug linked to multiple deaths and hospitalisations.

Decriminalising possession does some good, but the Royal Commission should not shy away from considering legalised and controlled commercial supply.

The British Medical Council has called for drugs to be ‘legalised, regulated, and taxed’ so that the money goes into public services rather than the pockets of drug cartels. Regulation would be stricter or laxer depending on the evidence of the particular substance’s effects, rather than on moral panic. Indeed, with the current direction of policy on alcohol, tobacco, and fast food, if drugs were handed out like sweets they’d be extensively safety tested and labelled with an ever-decreasing portion size.

The War on Drugs can never be won, and will continue to create thousands of preventable casualties a year, as long as there are people who want to take them. Ending demand is simply not going to happen.

Restricting supply pushes the industry into criminal hands and makes it harder for drugs charities and support services to access those most in need of assistance. A truly open discussion, which considers all possible options on their merits and the available evidence, would allow the UK to create a new drugs policy with harm reduction at its core.

Hannah Bettsworth is studying for a masters degree in European Affairs at Sciences Po.