How the UK could end its war on drugs

My piece appeared in the Guardian yesterday:

Britain is in the midst of a drug emergency. The country is witnessing unprecedented rates of Class A drug use; Border Force officers are seizing more cocaine than at any time in recorded history. The problem is particularly bad in Scotland, which has the highest rateof drug deaths in the European Union: 1,187 people died in 2018 in Scotland, a record number, and the figures for 2019 look set to be even higher.

This catastrophe was wholly avoidable, if the British government had been willing to tackle the issue with the seriousness it deserves. Instead, there has been a huge reduction in services for those affected by drug addiction. The sad reality is that the young people being lost to drugs are mostly poor and voiceless, so politicians pay little attention to them.

While I was researching my book on the drug war, politicians admitted to me that they were still scared of the tabloid backlash if they dared advocate legalisation or the end of prohibition. Although the public debate around drugs has improved in the last years, many politicians are still stuck in the past, pushing a failed model of “getting tough” and vapid sloganeering.

Over the last five years, when I was working on my book, I visited Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, the Philippines, the US, Australia and the UK to assess the state of the US-inspired “war on drugs”. I examined how drug prohibition continues to cause huge problems for the most vulnerable people on the planet. I came to the conclusion that legalising marijuana in countries around the world has had relatively little impact on the ferocity of the “war on drugs”.

Britain remains stubbornly unwilling to address the drug crisis on its doorstep. Newcastle, where many residents are struggling to cope with soaring unemployment, austerity and wilful neglect, had 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents between 2015 and 2017, almost twice the national average. Mark Tunney, the co-founder of the Newcastle-based Jigsaw Recovery Project, told me that government and social services don’t even “scratch the surface” of the huge drug abuse problems in his area.

A former drug user and dealer himself, Tunney is now committed to helping his community. “I think the biggest problem we have in this country at the moment is that we punish people who use drugs,” he said. He said he wanted to abolish the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because it had led to large numbers of needless arrests and the stigmatisation of generations of citizens just for possessing or using drugs. “It’s really killing people,” he said. “Out of the seven people I grew up with, I’m the only one that’s still left alive.” The rest had died from heroin overdoses.

There are Conservative politicians who advocate a saner view on drugs. Former prisons minister Crispin Blunt is an outspoken supporter of legalising and regulating all drugs as well as establishing a royal commission to assess Britain’s drug policy. The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group is active in pushing for evidence-based drugs policy. At the start of the year, Annie Wells, the Scottish Conservatives’ public health spokeswoman, called on Boris Johnson to take “radical” action: she said she was open to the decriminalisation of drugs and the introduction of consumption rooms where drugs could be taken safely (a policy that already exists successfully across Europe and Australia). In 2008, Johnson himself backed the legalisation of medical marijuana.

The prime minister now has a unique opportunity to follow Canada in making the UK the next major western nation to legalise and regulate marijuana. Alcohol and drug treatment must be properly funded to reverse the years of damaging cuts. But given the Conservatives’ record, they are unlikely to lead on drug policy. So the Labour party must step up.

In the last 20 years, Labour has often pushed draconian policies. But last year, the party came out in favour of launching a royal commission to review the legalisation of drugs. Once a new leader is in place, it needs to go further, advocating the removal of criminal charges for personal possession of illicit substances, pushing to legalise and regulate all drugs and funding research into the viable use of psychedelic drugs, such as MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine in the treatment of mental health problems. Until it adopts those stances, it can’t be considered a truly progressive party.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, film-maker and author. His new book is Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.