The UK is a world leader on drugs. We have the highest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe, the highest cocaine use among young adults and the highest number of people in drug treatment programmes. On 3 August, the Office for National Statistics released its latest figures on drug-related deaths in England and Wales, revealing that 2021 was a record-breaking year, and not in a good way.
It is no coincidence that we also have some of the toughest prohibitionist policies in the developed world. While other countries – Portugal, the Netherlands, Canada, even the US where Richard Nixon’s tragic “war on drugs” was launched – have been slowly following the science on harm and addiction and relaxing their drug laws, the UK has remained obstinate.
Neither of the two main parties are remotely interested in drug reform. The Conservatives, despite being led for the past three years by a man who admits his own past experimentations with cocaine, have moved ever further away from evidence-based drug policy, announcing draconian plans to increase random drug testing and confiscate the passports and driving licences of those found with illicit substances in their systems.
Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has taken the cowardly approach, using the excuse that he has “seen too much damage” as a result of drugs to countenance reform, without considering how such damage could be avoided by a better, more humane legal framework. While some brave MPs advocate liberalisation, backed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and grandees such as William Hague, most frontline politicians prefer to shut their eyes to the mounting evidence and pretend that prohibition works.
So it is hardly surprising that Rishi Sunak, desperately attempting to breathe life into his faltering Conservative leadership campaign, tried this line at a recent hustings in Darlington. The former chancellor called drugs “horrific”, insisting he had never taken them and saying he would be “incredibly tough on anyone who does”. Leaving aside whether his contempt for anyone who has ever experimented with drugs applies to his erstwhile cabinet colleagues Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, both of whom have admitted to dabbling in their past, this kind of mindless posturing is what prevents a grown-up conversation about how to save over 6,000 lives a year. It is what blocks not just the introduction of a legal market for low-risk drugs such as cannabis (a substance less damaging to the body than alcohol or tobacco, and far less damaging to society), but harm-reduction initiatives such as safety-checking services at festivals and supervised consumption facilities which can help prevent overdoses.
Sunak is presumably under the apprehension that the failed war on drugs is popular – and among Tory members, that all-powerful group who will choose the next prime minister, it might be. But neither the general public nor the “Red Wall” voters who won the Conservatives the last general election are so blinkered.
New polling released today (11 August) by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that voters overwhelmingly back harm-reduction strategies. Sixty-one per cent of the public support drug safety-checking services, rising to 66 per cent among Red Wall voters. Supervised drug consumption facilities, meanwhile, are supported by the public, with 49 per cent in favour compared to 18 per cent against – 45 per cent to 20 per cent among Red Wall voters.
Legalising cannabis, decriminalising possession of certain other drugs and allowing research into the medical properties of substances such as psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) all enjoy widespread support. And while just over half do believe that the criminal punishments handed out for drug use are too lenient, only 26 per cent think the threat of criminal penalties is effective at deterring use. A majority also believe that education or treatment is a better response to use than a fine or prison sentence.
Ultimately, the public is in step with the science, as evidenced by Portugal’s two-decade experiment in drug harm reduction. Having decriminalised possession for all narcotics in 2001, the country now has lower drug use and fewer drug-related deaths than the EU average. While prohibition will never be able to eliminate demand or supply (remember: UK drug use tops the international charts), making drug use safer and focusing on treatment over penalties is highly effective at preventing deaths. On-site drug testing schemes at festivals, for example, have been shown to significantly reduce hospital admissions. But confusion over the legality of these programmes, fuelled by the government’s anti-drugs rhetoric, has stopped them being rolled out more widely.
The prohibitionists Sunak is playing to do not want to hear this. Every time a teenager dies after taking dodgy pills at a festival, they will use it as an argument for harsher laws. They never consider whether that death could have been prevented by harm-reduction schemes such as drug testing services, or whether opioid addicts would be more likely to survive in treatment centres than in prison. Perhaps they do not care about those lives – but our elected representatives have a duty to.
A year ago, I interviewed the doctor and neuropsychopharmacology expert David Nutt, who in 2009 lost his job as the Labour government’s chief drug adviser over his advocacy of reform. “We know that the vast majority of politicians want the drug laws changed, but they’re terrified,” he told me then. Watching Sunak, who is surely aware of the evidence after seven years in parliament, pander to the war-on-drugs crowd, it seems that sense of fear is alive and well. But the latest polling shows it is also outdated. As Crispin Blunt, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, which commissioned the survey, put it, the results “strongly suggest that policymakers are getting it wrong”.
Demonising anyone who uses drugs and calling for tougher punishment might make for a good soundbite, but it doesn’t reduce use and it won’t save lives. Experts such as Nutt have known this for decades, and now it turns out the public knows it too. It’s time for the politicians to catch up.