Fifty years of fatal failure

Published by The i paper (24th May, 2021)

Vicky Unwin has been one of my sister’s closest friends since they met many years ago over a glass of spilled wine as students at Cambridge University. Ten years ago, Vicky suffered every parent’s worst fear: the death of her daughter from a drugs overdose. Louise was a bright, bubbly 21-year-old, filled with hope for the future inspired by her love of music, fashion and arts. Instead her life was snuffed out when she drowned in the bath after falling asleep having taken some ketamine.

Vicky’s grief is far too common in this country, which has about one-third of all drug-related deaths in Europe. Yet our politicians seem indifferent, content to let the death toll keep on soaring, to let more families suffer, while they play pathetic tribal games and ignore many real problems confronting citizens. So now Vicky fights for drug reform. “I am sure that if the criminalisation of drugs were not the norm and the law, Louise might have been alive today,” she said. “The ketamine she used would have been bought like a bottle of wine in a regulated chemists, with all the appropriate warnings.”

This might sound shocking to some people. Yet she is joined in this struggle by other families that have suffered similar losses: people such as Ray Lakeman, who told me in his Isle of Man home five years ago about the agony of losing both his sons after they travelled on their first weekend trip away to watch Manchester United. The bodies of the two young men, aged 20 and 19, were found on the floor of a hotel room after they took super-strong ecstasy bought on the dark web. “I don’t want others to suffer from the pain,” he said. “Children need protection but the law is not stopping them taking drugs, so we need a safer approach.”

Drug legalisation is often seen, wrongly, as a liberal pipe dream. Yet clearly current policies are failing when so many people are dying, prices are falling, purity is rising and when new synthetic drugs flow constantly on to the market. Like it or not, drugs are out there, available in vast quantities and widely used. And few people know the dangers of unregulated drugs, sold by the most callous groups in society, better than distraught families who have suffered tragedies.

Yet as Ray says, Westminster is seen to ignore the carnage and growing evidence for reform, content to let so many people die as collateral damage in their stupid and outdated war on drugs that this week marks a grim anniversary in Britain. It is 50 years since Royal Assent was given to the Misuse of Drugs Act, arguably the most damaging piece of legislation passed in our nation’s recent history.

This measure has helped kill thousands of people by outsourcing key drug markets to the world’s most vicious gangsters. Far from reducing consumption, analysis by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation found the number of heroin users in England and Wales has soared from about 10,000 to more than 250,000 over the past half century, while cannabis use quintupled. Drug-related deaths have risen more than 30 fold, while in Scotland, hit even harder in recent years, the fatality rate is three times higher and 10 times the European average.

This is the most damning indictment of failure. Yet the response of many politicians is to keep on pushing “tough” policies instead of admitting to the Canute-like futility of their stance, as waves of crime and drugs wash over communities. Note how in Scotland, where drug-linked fatalities have more than doubled in five years, much of the increase is tied to benzodiazepines. Once again, this is a direct consequence of drug hysteria, which sparked tighter rules on legal prescriptions. This choked off supply routes for people misusing these drugs, creating the chance for crooks to develop a new market for high-potency street benzos − the etizolam pills or “blues” available for less than 50p − that are wreaking havoc north of the border.

Portugal has drug-related death rates 50 times lower than Scotland. The reason is simple: at the start of this century it stopped viewing drug use as a criminal concern and started seeing it as a health issue. Possession is still an offence, but it is handled with fines or treatment referrals rather than prison and criminal records.  Now this nation not only has some of the lowest fatality rates in Europe but among lowest use of drugs by teenagers and people in their twenties. It proves that sensible reform saves lives.

An intriguing new study in the journal Addiction suggests simply legalising cannabis in US states may have driven some Mexican gangs from the market while forcing others to ramp up the prices of opioids to make up for losses. Little wonder several police forces are ignoring Westminster by adopting Portugal’s approach rather than wasting resources on repeat prosecutions of people who need help to confront their demons.

This highlights another layer to this scandal: most MPs know their policies are failing but are too timid to act, pathetically fearing a media and public backlash. Yet as former Labour MP Bob Ainsworth discovered after his insights as a Home Office minister turned him into an unlikely drug reform campaigner, voters are in a more progressive place than politicians on this issue.

Slowly, some MPs are starting to speak out. One of the few Tories to put his head over the parapet is Dan Poulter, who works as an NHS psychiatrist specialising in addiction and thus sees the damage caused by criminalisation. “When you look at the human suffering being caused by current drug laws you see the overwhelming case for reform,” he said.

He is right. We have had 50 years of failure with the most disastrous results imaginable. Westminster needs to stir from its drug-induced stupor and act to stop the suffering.

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