It’s about time that we had an evidenced-based approach that focused on reducing harm
February 27, 2023 4:09 pm
As is obligatory for anyone writing about drugs policy, first a confession: I have smoked, inhaled and enjoyed marijuana. Not often, and not for more than a decade, but that is the extent of my own rather tame use of illicit drugs.
While several of my friends have dropped the occasional E, snorted coke, huffed poppers, done magic mushrooms or taken ketamine, I’ve always been wary of any drugs supplied by someone who isn’t a professional pharmacologist with their own state-of-the-art laboratory.
In my childhood in the 1980s, the cast of school drama Grange Hill released the record “Just Say No” – a song so bad that even re-listening 37 years later makes me want to abandon my caution and imbibe some hallucinogenic substances.
The “Just Say No” messaging was a US import. Nancy Reagan headed the US campaign, the wife of then US President Ronald Reagan whose government was facilitating the cocaine-trafficking of the Contras – a right wing rebel outfit trying to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua.
Hypocrisy has always been a key ingredient of drugs policy on this side of the Atlantic too. Government minister Michael Gove has admitted using cocaine – a class A drug. In 2014, as Secretary of State for Education, he introduced a teachers’ code of conduct that included lifetime disbarment for any teacher caught using cocaine. Evidently Gove does not believe such use should lead to permanent exclusion from running government departments.
In the US, Presidents Clinton and Obama have both admitted to smoking cannabis, with the latter ridiculing Clinton’s caveat that he did not inhale: “When I was a kid, I inhaled… that was the point.” Obama also confessed to having tried “a little blow [cocaine]” in his memoir Dreams from My Father.
Several US states have legalised marijuana for recreational use (including three of the most populous states: New York, California and Illinois), as have countries including Canada and Malta, which became the first EU state to legalise cannabis although Luxembourg and Germany have announced plans to establish a legally regulated market.
The UK debate on drugs is still stuck in the evidence-free moralism (and hypocrisy) of the 1980s. Just last week, Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed told the BBC’s Nick Robinson “We’re not going to be legalising drugs,” citing his experience of seeing kids killed on south London’s streets after becoming involved in drug gangs.
But, as a fellow resident of south London’s streets, I feel compelled to point out that’s the point of legalisation – it takes drugs out of the hands of violent gangs. Just as ending prohibition in the US took alcohol out of the hands of gangsters like Al Capone. It is prohibition that puts these substances into the hands of criminals whose business models are not protected by state infrastructure and police, and therefore have to be defended by violence.
Legalisation also gives the Government the ability to regulate strength and quality – as it does for tobacco and alcohol. Over my lifetime, the Government has mandated reductions in the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes in order to benefit public health.
In the past year, over 3 million adults in the UK used illegal drugs at least once – just shy of one million used drugs frequently. One in six 16 to 24-year-olds have used cannabis in the last year. Whatever you think of drugs, people are using them – your friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues: criminalisation isn’t deterring usage.
Last year London Mayor Sadiq Khan established a London drugs commission to look at policy options, after visiting a legalised cannabis farm in California. Labour’s Mayor has also proposed pilot projects in three boroughs to stop arresting 18-24 year olds caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Despite the commission being chaired by Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s former flatmate and Justice Secretary, Khan was immediately disowned by Labour in Westminster, with shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting not inquiring whether such an approach might reduce harm or save lives (as you might expect to be a priority for a wannabe health secretary), but sarcastically commenting “Does this make it more or less likely that we win a general election?”. His colleagues, including shadow justice secretary Steve Reed, piled in too, labelling it an “open goal” for the Tories.
But the kneejerk anti-drugs panic is a peculiarly Westminster phenomenon, and out of touch with public opinion: a YouGov poll at the time found 52 per cent of people in favour of legalising cannabis, with only 32 per cent against.
In Scotland, where drugs deaths are the highest in Europe, Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has proposed Overdose Prevention Centres and has worked on a Glasgow pilot for safe consumption of drugs to try to reduce harm.
It’s about time that we had an evidenced-based approach that focused on reducing harm, reducing crime and safe consumption of drugs – to me that points to legalisation being at least part of the solution. The legalisation of (at least some) drugs could also raise much needed revenues to help fund programmes for problem drug users to be weaned off their addictions to harder drugs.