7th October 2021
In his speech to the Tory conference yesterday, Boris Johnson claimed that an idea coming ‘straight out of the powder rooms of North London’ was to ‘decriminalise hard drugs’ and ‘let the gangsters off with a caution’.
For a discussion around how we deal with people caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, misplaced and stigmatising terms like ‘gangsters’ are deeply unhelpful. No one, of course, has proposed cautions for serious organised crime actors. However, many do argue that our police-led approach to drug harms has, for over half a century, simply failed to achieve its goals and that we urgently need to reduce the burden of criminalisation on people who use drugs. Indeed, the war on drugs has been more of a war on people. It has made things much worse – and not for ‘metropolitan elites’ with whom the Government currently seems preoccupied - but significantly for the most marginalised and excluded members of our community.
The UK is facing a drug-related death crisis. Numbers of drug-related deaths are spiralling upwards, as are the levels of misery and exploitation associated with illegal drug supply. For generations, politicians have talked about getting ‘tough on drugs’, but the evidence of our eyes tells us what a failure this has been. Simply cracking down on drug gangs does not end drug supply: as the Home Office’s own recent independent review of drugs by Dame Carol Black noted, it fuels competition in the market, a Darwinian process that often causes more ruthless and violent operators to rise to the top. County lines networks don’t exist simply because some middle-class users buy cocaine; they exist because young people with few life chances are easily exploited by criminal gangs who exist only because the illegal market in drugs is so lucrative. Drug gang violence and county lines, according to the Government’s own research, are most closely linked to heroin and crack markets – which themselves are a consequence of poverty, inequality and failures in mental health provision and the care system.
Giving people criminal records for low-level possession offences disproportionately impacts the life chances of the most vulnerable and marginalised in society while doing little or nothing to deter use, curtail markets, or reduce serious drug harms. Furthermore, research shows us that stop and search for suspected drug possession amplifies disproportionate policing: Black men are nine times more likely to be stopped on suspicion of cannabis possession, despite being less likely than their white counterparts to actually use drugs.
Decriminalisation is not being ‘soft on drugs’. It is already in place in around 30 countries globally, including Portugal which saw drug-related harms fall dramatically after it adopted a new approach twenty years ago. Decriminalisation is supported by all the United Nations agencies including the World Health Organisation, as well as the Royal Society for Public Health, and the Royal College of Physicians.
The Government’s Independent Review of Drugs, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and even the much-criticised Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, have all called for people caught with drugs for their own use to be diverted away from the criminal justice system (approaches generally referred to as Police diversion schemes rather than ‘decriminalization’ - although the end result of avoiding prosecution is similar from the perspective of the individual caught in possession). They have all recognised the needless damage excessive policing of drug laws does to communities and individuals.
Boris Johnson’s own Government recognises that simplistic ‘crackdown’ approaches to drug possession don’t work, and that diversion away from the criminal justice system is essential. Every year, we spend around £1.4 billion enforcing our punitive drug laws across the criminal justice system. This is not an efficient use of resources when applied to low-level possession, particularly when considering possession makes up around 80% of all recorded drug offences. We need effective policing, not expensive and ineffective actions that fail to support better social outcomes.
The Government’s own headline drug policing pilot, Project ADDER, includes diversion away from criminal justice as one of its five core approaches (one of the Ds is for ‘Diversion’). The policing minister Kit Malthouse is on record supporting this approach, and indeed is the Scottish Tory Party, despite their critique of The Scottish Government when it announced the rollout of a similar scheme in Scotland. To echo the head of the National Crime Agency, no one seriously thinks we can arrest our way out of this problem. This Government knows the reality is complex, even if they cannot resist suggesting otherwise.
The tragedy of drug policy is that what needs to be done, and what scores political points, are too often at odds with each other. But doubling down on failure is not the tough response. Boris Johnson has signalled that he sees drugs as an important issue, but that means acknowledging past failings and allowing new approaches to be discussed openly. We desperately need a serious, grown-up debate about what works in drug policy, because we cannot afford decades more failure.
Image source: @BorisJohnson on Twitter