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Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus

People holding up signs that say No More Drug War

Commentary on the short film ‘Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus’ and reflections on the morality of a criminal justice approach to drugs

A short film has been produced that explores some of the misconceptions fuelling the propagation of punitive drug policy, and what an alternative approach to drugs might look like. For a full commentary of this issue, see here.

The film features drug policy experts, including former members of the Home Office Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor David Nutt and Professor Alex Stevens; current and former police officers; representatives of national and international advocacy organisations; and stakeholders who have been involved with the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs in Portugal, and the provision of drug consumption rooms across Europe.

Despite the decades spent waging a global war on drugs, across the world drug markets continue to grow and drug-related harm continues to increase. If the true aim of the war on drugs was to reduce harm, then it has categorically failed. Any other field of public policy similarly marred by failure would be swiftly overhauled, were it not for the burden of ideology framing its aims in terms of a moral impetus.

Not only has punitive drug policy not eliminated drug use but it has had unintended consequences as people are encouraged to use drugs in riskier ways and are deterred from engaging with services which might otherwise have reduced the exposure to risk. It causes incalculable harm itself as people are deprived of their liberty for drug-related offences, and contact with the criminal justice system is associated with a host of health and socioeconomic inequalities. It is inconsistent with human rights norms and it persists as a face of prejudice in a world acutely sensitised to the shadow of racial injustice as punitive laws are exercised disproportionately on members of ethnic minority communities, notably in the USA, and also in the UK.

The chorus of voices calling for change is growing. Following the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs in Portugal, wider consideration of the approach has been recommended by the United Nations Chief Executives Board for Coordination, the Royal Society of Public Health, a recent House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. Others including the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Transform have highlighted the potential benefits of regulating the drug market, thereby starving criminal organisations of their most lucrative source of income. Furthermore, the ACMD has repeatedly recommended the wider adoption of harm reduction interventions, such as supervised drug consumption rooms. Regardless, the UK government has not indicated that they intend to change their approach in the foreseeable future.

Presumably, as Professor David Nutt has highlighted, this is because drug policy decisions in the UK, and elsewhere, are not primarily motivated by considerations of reducing harm; but by a moral judgement. The rhetoric goes – ‘it is immoral to use certain drugs (which were decided over 50 years ago without scientific basis) and people who choose to use these drugs, deserve to be punished’. This would include an estimated one in five 16-24 year olds who have used an illegal drug in the last year according to the most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales.

Proponents of punitive drug policy might argue that it is morally justifiable to punish people for using drugs in order to deter others from doing so, thereby reducing drug-related harm and leading to improvements in the health of the wider population. However, there is not convincing evidence that punitive policy deters people from using drugs – the Home Office itself published a report in 2014 highlighting that there is no clear relationship between the liberality of a country’s drug laws and the level of drug use in that country. Regardless, even if this was effective, it is morally equivalent to putting people in prison for eating too much cake to encourage others to eat a healthier diet. When described as such – as what it is – punishing a member of society as a means, to the end of ‘encouraging the others’, is clearly incompatible with the foundations of European political philosophy, and contemporary guidelines in public health ethics. This approach would not be tolerated, if it were not for the ingrained idea that there is something special about illegal drugs, which makes using them morally wrong.

Beyond historical socio-political idiosyncrasies, it is not at all clear what distinguishes illegal drugs like cannabis and amphetamines from legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which might explain the moral difference between them. There are many illegal drugs, with vastly different effects and risk profiles that have as much in common with each other as they do with those drugs that are legal. In fact, the only characteristic that illegal drugs obviously have in common distinguishing them from legal drugs which we might identify as the source of their immorality, is precisely that they are illegal. This leads to a circular argument – these drugs are illegal because their use is immoral, and their use is immoral because they are illegal. Unfortunately, the circularity of this argument means that it is as logically unassailable to those who hold it as it is nonsensical to those who do not.

If policymakers feel that it is a moral imperative that is motivating drug policy decisions, then it is unsurprising that the mounting evidence in favour of other approaches to reduce harm has not been heeded. Reducing harm continues to be a secondary consideration behind propagating the ideology that drug use is morally wrong.

The persistence of punitive drug policy in the UK might be driven directly by policymakers, or indirectly by the electorate, as politicians try to avoid being seen as “soft on drugs”. The complexities of the arguments for drug policy reform are not as easily digestible as the metaphor that drug use is an enemy that needs to be fought, particularly for members of the public with busy lives who are not knowingly affected by the issue. For many, much of their knowledge of drugs presumably comes from the media, which sensationalises and feeds into the discourse of the war on drugs. This film was produced to provide an alternative source of information for the electorate who could give decisionmakers the mandate to ethically rationalise drug policy or hold them to account if they do not. If it can escape the social media echo chamber, it is hoped that it may give even a few people pause to reflect on what a more ethical approach to drugs might look like.

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