The commitment to an anti-drug ideology has been wholly ineffective at decreasing drug-use.
Over the last 40 years, in an effort to decrease drug-use, the U.K. has been committed to a “War on Drugs”, the total prohibition and criminalisation of narcotics. However, a policy that costs nearly £3bn every year to enforce has done little to create a drug-free world.
Over the last few years there has been a steady rise in the number of drug-related deaths in England, in 2014 there were a reported 2,248 drug poisoning related deaths, with deaths involving heroine and cocaine rising 39% and 31% respectively. Drug use is generally more common in economically deprived areas with the Northeast of England (which had the second lowest share of national GVA at 3%) having double the mortality rate than London (which had the highest single GVA share at 22.9%) in 2014.
The problem with U.K. drug policy is that instead of treating illegal drug-use as a health problem, similar to obesity or smoking, it indiscriminately criminalises drug-users. Whilst there is still a legitimate case for targeting drug-suppliers with the full-brunt that UK law has to offer, there is little case for ruining the lives of those who may have only taken drugs occasionally (such as university students experimenting for the first time) by giving them a criminal record and therefore making it harder to find work. More importantly, the prospect of prosecution is often enough to dissuade hard-drug addicts from seeking the help that they so desperately need.
Ironically then, the “war on drugs” might be seen to actually keep people on drugs, first off by giving criminal convictions to occasional users making them more likely to be unemployed and subsequently more likely to take drugs (according to one study, drug use among the unemployed was more than double than that among those in full-time work). Secondly, those already addicted are more likely to stay on their fix rather than seek official help.
Drug policy should be like any other policy; if it’s expensive and ineffective (or possibly counter-effective) then other policies should be introduced that are better at addressing the problem. The U.K. would not be the first place to overturn their drug policy; over the last few years a handful of U.S. states have legalised cannabis use and the South-American country of Uruguay fully legalised its production and sale. This has had only benefits for the economy and people; Colorado collected $135 million in Marijuana taxes and fees in 2015, money that can be spent on health and welfare (for instance drug rehabilitation) as well as areas with a substantial long-term return, such as education or infrastructure.
On the matter of hard-drugs, it was Portugal in 2000 that made the move to decriminalise all drugs deemed for personal use. Although many sceptics were convinced that it would skyrocket, Portugal has seen a general decline in drug-use, from an estimated 100,000 heroine addicts in 2000 (roughly 1% of the population) to half that in 2015. Instead of prosecuting, those caught with hard-drugs appear at a dissuasion panel, where experts warn them of the risks and offer help, giving them a chance to get out of the self-destructive cycle that is drug addiction.
It is the beginning of the end for the ‘war on drugs’ and the sooner the U.K. recognises that prosecution is not the answer, the faster addicts can be treated. Unfortunately this may not be any time soon, as Home Secretary, Theresa May was whole-heartedly committed to the war on drugs (Nick Clegg even accused her with tampering with a drug report that she didn’t like), and as Prime Minister she has made no sign of changing course. This will be all the worse for the whole of society, with taxpayers’ money essentially being flushed-down the drain on a pointless anti-drug crusade, when it could be spent on far more beneficial things that have been shown to lower the drug use rate.
The ‘war on drugs’ was ultimately intended to stop drug use; if it’s doing the opposite then it needs to change. It’s more than a matter of ideological pride; like everything else in politics, it affects people’s lives.