UK Drugs Policy: The Non-Debate

Francesca Dobson

The Home Affairs Select Committee recently published a report controversially suggesting that perhaps, maybe, the UK should spend a bit more time and money looking into alternative drug policies.

Some of the main points raised included:

  1. Alcohol is legal and it’s a drug. Some even argue it might be more harmful than Bob Marley’s special cigarettes for example, so why should we treat other drugs so differently?
  2. The war on drugs is unwinnable. They couldn’t stop people drinking in the US in the 1920s and 30s and they sure aren’t going to be able to stop people growing or making, shipping and taking illegal substances now.
  3. Drug addiction should be treated as a health issue, with funds saved from prosecution or even collected through legalisation being used to help addicts and educate the population.

The second point is the key. Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If this is true, the world seems cuckoo about tackling coca and cannabis. Having grown up in Colombia, the extent to which this ‘war on drugs’ cannot be won perhaps seems clearer to me. Colombia took on the drugs cartels with protracted help from the US, yet it still remains one of top three coca producers in the world. In Mexico, over 60,000 people have been killed in the war on drugs since it was launched in 2006. So the Select Committee may be onto something.

With these worrying facts in mind, The Global Commission on Drug Policy was formed with the aim of highlighting both the failure of current prohibition and ‘war on drugs’ policies, and the need for a different approach to tackling the drugs issue altogether. Its committee is formed by various international statesmen and women including the former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, Chile and Poland. Oh yeah – and Richard Branson.

Interestingly, the members of the commission did not seem to feel the same when they were heads of state and actually had the power to make the changes they now so strongly advocate. Looking back at the UK and Europe, we see a similar pattern. Former British Ministers such as Bob Ainsworth, Clare Short and Lord Lawson have also called for a drugs policy reform – once they were not in power. Around 75% of sitting MPs feel they cannot really engage in a proper debate on drug policy because it’s simply too controversial with alternative views admonished (see Professor David Nutt’s fall from grace for more on this).

Drug policy is a divisive topic for the electorate. This means a change in policy could prove electorally damaging. More importantly, the status quo is likelier to be supported by those most likely to vote – from many parents’ and grandparents’ point of view, and quite rightly, drugs are harmful, so why support a policy that could mean their children and grandchildren have easier access? Why not condemn and penalise the use of something which destroys lives, families and neighbourhoods?

So, where does this leave the future of UK drugs policy? It would seem that those with enough information and without the burden of office want to change it (both in the UK and abroad), but those in power do not want to advocate policies that are unlikely to get public support, let alone a fair hearing. Without perceived public support and more research into drugs, the best policies will stall, leaving us none the wiser about the alternatives.

Therefore, the third main point raised by the Home Affairs Select Committee becomes largely irrelevant: drugs may really be a health issue, but until the electorate receives more information on why this might be the case, they are unlikely to support any revolutionary drugs policies which at glance may seem to exacerbate the problem.

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