Britain’s criminal approach to drugs

Published by UnHerd (30th July, 2021)

Our nation’s politicians have long been guilty of an inflated sense of exceptionalism. But there is one area in which Britain indisputably leads Europe: the rate of citizens succumbing to drug-related deaths. We account for one-third of all such fatalities on the continent and the numbers have risen shockingly fast in recent years. Scotland heads this tragic table — and new statistics today show the desperate toll is worsening with 1,339 such deaths last year, an increase of five per cent on 2020. Next week, data from England and Wales is likely to show a similar surge, despite rising more than 50% over the previous decade.

These deaths are the predictable result of political failure. For decades, politicians have been hooked on prohibition. They have pushed the idea that use of illicit drugs should be punished and persisted with suggestions they can stifle flows of heroin, cocaine and cannabis, rather than accepting there is strong demand and focusing on harm reduction. The absurdity of their stance is exposed by the failure to keep even top-security prisons free of drugs, while on the streets prices fall, purity rises and new synthetic drugs arrive. This is, after all, a country with 11,000 miles of coast that sees 500m tonnes of goods a year move through its ports — yet total annual consumption of cocaine could fit in a solitary shipping container.

The legacy of such political irresponsibility is seen in these grim fatality figures. Our leaders outsourced the drug markets to criminal gangs, which rely on violence and grooming of young recruits to dominate their lucrative trade. There is, of course, no quality control on the content or strength of their wares. So forget all that Tory talk of levelling up, given the devastating impact of these policies on poorer parts of society. In England, the highest rate of fatalities is found in the north east, three times higher than further down the coast before the pandemic. In Scotland, epicentre for this whirlwind of misery, hospitalisation rates for drug-related incidents are reportedly 16 times higher in low-income areas than more prosperous parts.

The data is even more dispiriting when you probe prohibitionist policies. It is 50 years since signing of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which banned possession, supply, manufacture, import and export of controlled drugs — arguably the most damaging piece of legislation passed by parliament in recent decades. Since then, the number of heroin users in England and Wales has risen 25-fold, according to analysis by Transform Drug Policy Foundation, while drug-related deaths have soared more than 30-fold. The fatality rate in Scotland is ten times the average across Europe — and it has more than doubled over the past five years. Half of our homicides are also linked to drugs (along with half the acquisitive crimes and rough sleepers).

Could there be a more damning indictment of failure than all these corpses? Yet politicians cut support for treatment centres, pushed abstinence and kept pandering to fear with disastrous consequences. In Scotland, much of the rise in fatalities is down to use of benzodiazepines. Media hysteria led to tightening of the rules on legal prescriptions, which choked the supply routes for people abusing these drugs and thus incentivised criminals to develop the market for ultra-cheap, high-potency street benzos − the “blues” behind much of the horrifying carnage north of the border.

Or take events in parts of northern England after police targeted the cutting agents used by cocaine dealers to pad out their products and hike profits. Yes, this led to successful prosecutions of people found in illicit possession of large quantities of benzocaine, a mild anaesthetic used by dentists. But the result was simply a sharp rise in the purity of cocaine sold on the streets of places such as Manchester. Prices also plunged at the same time from about £45,000 a kilo to £30,000 a kilo, according to the charity Release, due to increased production in Latin America. This is close to half the £55,000 cost of a wholesale kilo 12 years ago on official figures, indicating significant rise in supplies.

“The drugs market is resilient and increased money for policing, increased busts and increased prosecutions do little to disrupt the trade,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release. “Even when borders have shut across the world in the pandemic it had little effect on the supply chains. This is a business that adapts fast, so as the government lauds the success of law enforcement closing down so-called county lines, new supply models are developed. We need new thinking, we need to start exploring decriminalisation and we need regulation of these substances.”

She is right. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure — as shown by the government’s own reports. These admit Britain has the highest number of cocaine and high-risk opioid users in Europe, disclosing that there has been rising cocaine use over the past decade with recent hikes “clear in most age groups” and purity at highest levels on record due to “increased availability’. A 2017 review of strategy  revealed central government spent £1.6bn on enforcement, yet “drug seizures… had little impact on availability” although there were “potential unintended consequences…such as violence related to drug markets”.  Even the biggest of drug busts barely dent supplies or costs on the streets, as many cops will admit.

It is estimated the “harms” cost England an astonishing £19.3bn a year, mainly due to crime and health. Yet Boris Johnson, unveiling a package of rehashed crime policies last week to look strong for his red wall voters, misleads the public with continuing pretence that we can beat the “scourge” of drugs. His ministers talk of “tough law enforcement” and win headlines for “cracking down” on recreational use with more testing after arrests. They claim this will “challenge drug misuse, reduce demand and change the perceived acceptability of using illicit drugs”, while a cross-government summit will “drive down demand for illegal drugs”.

I doubt cartel bosses and drug barons are quaking with fear over Johnson’s drug bash. In truth, it is bordering on criminal to see politicians stick to their bungling stance as the death toll mounts. Yet there are signs that behind the tough talk, the state’s backfiring drug war stance is starting to crumble. Both Scottish and English governments are putting a bit more cash into treatment while two key parliamentary committees have called for drug decriminalisation. “We recommend a radical change in UK drugs policy from a criminal justice to a health approach,” said the health and social care committee. “A harm reduction approach would not only benefit those who are using drugs but reduce the costs for their wider communities.”

Many frustrated police forces, fed up with wasting resources, are simply pressing ahead with “diversion schemes”. Avon and Somerset, North Wales, Thames Valley and West Midlands were among the first to follow the successful lead of Durham in seeking to slash reoffending rates and save costs by offering drug education or treatment as an alternative to arrest, cautioning or prosecution for people caught in possession. At least eight more have followed suit, with Scotland among others developing schemes. “You could call this de facto decriminalisation,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform. “But that word seems problematic for this government because of worries it is seen as being soft on drugs.”

Rolles pointed out, however, that these strategies are winning ministerial plaudits and were backed by this month’s Black review into drug strategies. But surely it is unacceptable to have a postcode lottery that sees one person caught with a small stash of drugs end up in prison with a criminal record, while another sits through talks learning about harm reduction? Not to mention the inflammatory racial bias seen in police stop and search efforts focused on drugs. “We need to stop people going to prison for drugs since it is the wrong place for those people with problems,” said Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser.

Nutt was sacked in 2009 by the New Labour government for daring to tell the truth about cannabis, ecstasy and LSD being less harmful to public health than alcohol and tobacco. Since then, cheap potent, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and mephedrone have arrived on our shores. But both big parties remain terrified of talking honestly to voters about drugs, although the few MPs breaking ranks have found the public in a more progressive place than they anticipated. Meanwhile there is increasing interest in Portugal, which 20 years ago this month showed a way out of the drug morass under the leadership of António Guterres, now United Nations secretary general.

Portugal acted out of desperation at a rising death toll. It had high levels of heroin use at the turn of the century, hundreds of deaths, highest rates of HIV infection in the European Union and prison cells filled with people sentenced for drug offences. “It was almost impossible to find a family in Portugal that did not have drug-related problems,” said João Goulão, architect of their reforms. So they decriminalised drug possession, focused on health rather than punishment, shifted from abstinence-based campaigns and flipped funds into treatment. The result is shown in the latest annual data for drug-related deaths: 62 fatalities in a population twice the size of Scotland.

This is a spectacular turnaround. Now Portugal has among the lowest drug-related death rates in Europe, along with some of the lowest levels of use among younger generations. There is still a bedrock of high-risk opioid users, although numbers have fallen significantly and habits tend to be less problematic. It remains illegal to deal drugs. But those found with small quantities for personal use are sent before a local commission — typically a doctor, lawyer and social worker — to be told about support services. “We do not focus on drug problems but any issues people might have in their lives that lead to drug use,” said Goulão. “This is the key to our success. No one ends up in prison with a criminal record and stigma.”

Other countries have also seen the light, such as the Czech Republic and Spain. If Britain had followed similar policies, thousands of lives might have been saved. And these deaths should not be dismissed: they are a symbol of collective societal failures as well as a sign of lethal political stupidity. It has been shown time and again how the hallucination of prohibition can have perverse consequences by fuelling death, innovation and sales rather than depressing demand. So let us stop pretending another bust, another crackdown and another poor sod with mental health struggles being sent to prison is going to stop the use of drugs. Portugal shows there is a path forward that is cheaper, kinder and safer for everyone — as well as more honest about human nature. So why not level up with the electorate?

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