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30 March 2021

Why are the UK’s drug laws so backward?

As US states pursue overdue reform, Britain remains wedded to a dogmatic and ineffective war on drugs.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The war on drugs was launched by Richard Nixon – and 50 years on, in the US at least, the drugs are winning. Anti-prohibition movements have been gaining ground over the past decade, culminating at the 2020 presidential election in a wave of ballot initiatives across various states to relax the rules around – and in some cases fully legalise – cannabis. There was also a particularly bold vote in Oregon to decriminalise possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and to legalise medical psilocybin (the chemical in magic mushrooms).  

Spurred into action by proactive states, even Joe Biden, who as a senator campaigned for tougher drug laws, has changed his tune. The president announced last month: “No one should go to jail for a drug offence, no one should go to jail for the use of a drug”. 

The prevailing wisdom runs that, where the US leads, the rest of the world follows. So it was in the 1970s, when the UK and other countries jumped on Nixon’s bandwagon, opting for prohibition and enforcement instead of a regulated legal market for controlled substances.  

Yet the UK doesn’t seem to have got the latest message. On the Labour side, despite the views of some party members, Keir Starmer recently made clear that he opposes relaxing drug laws. 

The Conservative government, meanwhile, is veering even further away from liberalisation. It was reported recently that a “PR blitz” is planned that will liken cocaine use to drink-driving , and that “the PM wants to make it socially unacceptable to do drugs”. Boris Johnson’s self-confessed past drug use, along with that of other cabinet colleagues, does not appear to have lent this government much insight into the failure of prohibition; instead of “following the science” – and the history – of drug legislation, they are continuing a blinkered policy that has been proven not to work. 

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One man who knows all about the political double-think around drug use is Professor David Nutt. A doctor and expert in neuropsychopharmacology (a branch of neuroscience that considers the effects of drugs on the mind), Nutt, 69, has held a number of positions at prestigious universities and institutes on both sides of the Atlantic, and advised both the Blair and Brown governments on drug policy. He was appointed chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2008 – but less than two years later, after repeated clashes with government officials, he was dismissed. At the time, Nutt wrote of his removal

“I gave a lecture on the assessment of drug harms and how these relate to the legislation controlling drugs. According to Alan Johnson, the home secretary, some contents of this lecture meant I had crossed the line from science to policy and so he sacked me. I do not know which comments were beyond the line or, indeed, where the line was.” 

More than a decade later, Nutt is scathing about the way politicians treat science in relation to drug policy.  

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“Facts are an irrelevance to politics. It’s about avoiding the facts,” he laments, talking to me via Zoom with copies of his new book Nutt Uncut behind him. He points out that alcohol is far more dangerous – in terms of addiction and its effect on the brain – than prohibited drugs such as cannabis and MDMA (ecstasy). “The policies come first, rather than the evidence.” 

It was the insistence on said evidence, which included arguing that “equasy” (horse riding) was over 20 times more likely to result in serious harm than the drug ecstasy, that led to Nutt’s departure from the ACMD. Shortly afterwards, he founded Drug Science, which describes itself as an “independent, science-led drugs charity, uniquely bringing together leading drugs experts from a wide range of specialisms to carry out ground-breaking research into drug harms and effects”. 

In 2010, Drug Science analysed and added up the “harms” (to both society and the individual) of 20 different drugs and ranked them in terms of risk. The most high-risk, according to this data, is alcohol. Cannabis – class B in the UK – is ranked below alcohol and tobacco. Ecstasy – a class A drug in the UK (the most highly restricted category) – is near the bottom of the scale. Nutt considers it less than half as harmful as alcohol to the user. 

“Alcohol addiction takes 15-20 years off your life,” he explains. “Ecstasy use, if you know you what you’re doing and don’t take too much, doesn’t affect lifespan at all.” 

[see also: If you are taking part in Dry January, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t drink well]

That doesn’t mean it is risk-free. “All drugs have harms,” Nutt reminds me, noting that people can die from simply drinking too much water. “But we don’t respond to that by banning water.” 

What really enrages Nutt is how readily available alcohol is, while the use (let alone the supply) of far less harmful drugs is punishable by prison. This to him is both an unconscionable double standard and a drastically counterproductive policy if the aim is keeping people safe. 

“The drug laws are a mishmash of political expedience and the influence of powerful lobbyists. They don’t serve any purpose in terms of minimising the harms of drugs or reducing the use of drugs – if anything they do the opposite.” 

His ideal legislative approach would begin by decriminalising personal possession of all drugs – as was done in Oregon recently and in Portugal in 2001. He would then introduce a legal, regulated market for less addictive drugs such as cannabis, MDMA, LSD and magic mushrooms, balanced with higher alcohol taxes to reduce consumption. Highly addictive drugs such as heroin would still be illegal to sell, with the hope that the availability of regulated alternatives would shrink the black market and bring down associated crime.  

Nutt acknowledges, however, that this is a fantasy. Leaders of all parties are too fearful of a media backlash to proposed an evidence-based drugs policy – he cites the pressure on Tony Blair to get tough on magic mushrooms, David Cameron’s volte-face on downgrading MDMA’s classification once he became Tory leader and Gordon Brown’s bizarre (in Nutt’s view) move to upgrade cannabis to class B from class C. He notes too that many politicians  – such as former drugs minister Bob Ainsworth and former Conservative leader William Hague – miraculously became liberalisation converts after leaving office. 

But while he understands the awkward position they are in, he is utterly disparaging about their duplicity, especially when so many were – and may still be – users themselves. 

“We’ve been campaigning for wastewater testing outside the Houses of Parliament for decades,” he laughs, when asked what impact a shaming initiative focused on cocaine use would have, suggesting some politicians struggle to live up to their own rhetoric on the evils of drug use.  

“You’ve got the second or third most powerful man in government – Michael Gove – who by his own admission could have been imprisoned for his past cocaine use. The hypocrisy is so overreaching.”  

You can sense Nutt’s frustration when he talks of how Britain has been left behind, while other countries have abandoned their misguided wars on drugs and embraced a model that aims to help users, not imprison them.  

“You’ve got to show that the countries that have changed the law haven’t disintegrated,” he says. “Look at the example of Portugal. Portugal decriminalised all drug possession. That allows heroin addicts to get treated instead of going to prison.” Portugal now has the lowest rates of drug-related death in western Europe. 

“In the same time, we’ve increased heroin deaths to an all-time high. Our policies of using criminal sanctions kill people.” 

Nowhere, Nutt says, is the anti-science approach more apparent than with cannabis. Despite a much-heralded law change two years ago allowing medical cannabis products to be available on the NHS, excessive red tape means a mere handful of prescriptions have been granted. With children with severe conditions such as epilepsy still unable to get treatment, Nutt asks what the government is so afraid of. 

“They’ve had medical marijuana in America for 20 years, 200 million Americans have access to it, 100 million have access to recreational marijuana. The world isn’t ending. But in Britain…” he trails off in despair. “We’re so fearful of cannabis. We scaremonger.” 

And that’s what seems to antagonise him most: how successive UK governments refuse to look at evidence from beyond our borders and rethink their hard-line stance. 

“We’re so up our own arses in terms of thinking how clever we are as a nation. We won’t learn from anyone else at all. But there’s plenty of evidence out there.” And, he notes, it’s not as though the UK approach is working anyway. 

“Anyone can get cannabis anywhere… and it’s illegal. So at what point do you accept that the policy has failed?” 

Ultimately, the situation will only change when the political maths does – when politicians realise how much they have to lose from refusing to countenance liberalisation. Economics may well play a part – establishing a legal, regulated cannabis market in the UK would provide an estimated £690m a year in tax for the Treasury, in addition to cost savings on policing and prisons. The UK public already back cannabis legalisation by two to one, and perhaps the example of the US can jolt UK MPs out of their anti-drugs dogma. 

It’s hard to say whether Nutt has much optimism, after all, he’s seen how governments operate. “We’re still living with the historical legacy of the lies we’ve told about drugs,” he sighs, with the air of a man who has fought this battle many times, and come up against a wall of irrationality, fear and hysteria. 

But his message to those who ignore lessons from the rest of the world and oppose his work and that of his colleagues at Drug Science is clear: “Get real. We need to realise in this country that prohibitionist policies based on punishing people for using drugs haven’t worked. They don’t work – and they won’t work.”

[see also: We need answers to the drugs debate, but we shouldn’t look to charismatic outliers to find them]