General Election 2017

The war on drugs has failed – it’s time for reform

BY David Siesage | dtsies   /  12 July 2017

“They’re all the same,” is the electorate’s habitual complaint. And when faced with a choice between Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – three privately educated, 40-something men of varying degrees of centrism – you could see their point.

But 2017 put an end to that: both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May produced manifestos that represented serious ideological departures for their parties. Red meat was thrown to the party faithful. Not since Thatcher took on Foot was the divide between Labour and Tory so stark.

Meanwhile, in a bid to claw back some pre-Coalition popularity, the Liberal Democrats filled their manifesto with bold, attention-seeking policies. A second referendum, proportional representation, votes for 16 year olds – and significant reforms to drug legislation.

Describing the war on drugs as a ‘catastrophic failure’, they proposed to end the imprisonment of drug users and introduce a regulated cannabis market. They wanted to repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act, hand drugs policy to the Department of Health, and concentrate on defeating smugglers and dealers.

In the south west, where the Lib Dems desperately needed to recoup support, the Conservative Party took full advantage of this. Their targeted campaign literature was packed with references to drug legalisation. This was tactically astute: liberal drug reforms were unlikely to go down well in socially conservative, rural seats. The policy won headlines but precious few votes.

Yet in the aftermath of a humiliating election result, with a ruined policy programme and little forward momentum, the government shouldn’t dismiss the ideas out of hand.

Almost half a century ago, Richard Nixon declared that America’s public enemy number one was drug abuse. In response to a counterculture he despised, he threw money at drug control agencies and pushed through a slew of draconian legislation. His actions heralded the start of the war on drugs, into which the whole world was dragged.

Today, it is hard to argue that this war has been anything other than a futile, expensive and damaging waste of time. The Liberal Democrats realised that – now it’s time the government did too.

Theresa May believes that government can be a force for good. Her manifesto argued that the state should be ‘strategic, nimble and responsive to the needs of people’. If these convictions are truly held then serious drugs reform should be a priority in this parliament.

It may seem an unlikely cause for the socially conservative vicar’s daughter, but current legislation fuels the social division she claims to abhor. The government spends £2-4bn per year on its war on drugs, and it’s not working. Criminalising drug users has led to stronger drugs at lower prices. The purity has fallen and the risk has risen. In 2015 there were 2,479 deaths related to drug misuse – a 48 per cent increase from 2005.

The prohibition crusade is destroying communities and families, whilst promoting crime and addiction. So it’s not just libertarians who ought to support reform; all should recognise that we cannot go on this way. Politicians who fear the effect of liberal drug laws on the country’s social fabric must remember that those who benefit from criminalisation are the criminals: the international drug trade hands them around $320bn each year.

Around the world, politicians are slowly waking up to the dismal failure of Nixon’s war. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay, the USA and Canada have all taken steps towards ending prohibition. Even pockets of this country, such as Durham, have adopted sensible new approaches to drug abuse. The extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines are the last gasp of a failed global menace. Yet while international opinion is shifting, in Westminster the ban-and-arrest attitude persists.

Dr Alex Wodak, of the Drug Law Reform Foundation, proposes five steps the government could take in implementing legal drug regulation:

‘First, redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Second, improve treatment. Third, start reducing and, where possible, eliminating sanctions for drug use and drug possession. Fourth, regulate as much of the drug market as possible, starting with recreational cannabis. And fifth, shrink extreme poverty, which exacerbates drug problems.’

This sort of legislative reform should not be seen as drastic, but pragmatic. The potential benefits of legal drug regulation are clear: it could save lives, reduce crime, and save money.

Taking control of the drug market from criminals and handing it to government would remove a drug dealer’s ability to cut his products with cement and rat poison. It would block children’s access to narcotics. It would destroy a lucrative organised crime network. The time the police now spend pursuing petty criminals could be devoted to more substantive work. The money raised by taxing a regulated drug market could go to counter-terrorism, mental health and social care budgets.

May is not averse to social reform. In her long tenure as Home Secretary, she passed legislation on modern slavery and improved discriminatory stop-and-search practices. And while her position on LGBT issues has been questionable at best, she led the department that legalised gay marriage in 2013.

Now she has been (narrowly) elected on a manifesto promising to tackle the injustices facing the country. If this domestic agenda amounts to anything more than rhetoric, she must grasp the nettle of drug law reform. It may even attract the cross-party support she needs in an otherwise stuttering, partisan parliament.

Theresa May has cemented a place in history as the Brexit Prime Minister who threw away a majority. Drug reform could give her wayward premiership the direction and purpose it so desperately needs.