The ‘war on drugs’ is a disaster – and it’s about to get worse

Published by The i paper (1st January, 2024)

Two days after Christmas, the South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun, best known for playing a wealthy patriarch in the Oscar-winning film Parasite, was found dead in a car. His body was discovered when his wife – a fellow actor and mother of their two children – raised the alarm, reportedly after finding a note in their home. Three days earlier the 48-year-old star had endured a 19-hour grilling by police over allegations of drug use, which he denied and blamed on a blackmail attempt. This was his third interrogation, each one turned into a form of ritualised public humiliation, just like those faced by several other celebrities snared in a series of high-profile busts.

This tragedy has sparked intense debate in South Korea. It comes after a hardline new government – reviving the phrase first used by US President Richard Nixon more than half a century ago – pledged last year to “win the war on drugs” amid signs of surging use and related crime. The country’s laws are so tough that even smoking a joint abroad can lead to prosecution and prison. Yet the number of teenagers arrested on drug charges almost tripled this year and online drug offences soared. Once again, we glimpse the impact, flaws and futility of prohibition. 

Barely a week before Lee’s death, we saw latest data in the damage caused by our own nation’s addiction to these dismal old policies. Drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose for the 10th successive year with 60 such fatalities each week on average.This is three times the rate seen on the rest of our continent – and five times higher than in Portugal, the pioneering nation that pivoted away from punitive enforcement at start of this century when heroin addiction spiralled out of control and switched its focus to harm reduction. The drug death figures are even more depressing in Scotland, where they remain by far the worst in Europe despite a slight fall last year.

Given so many needless deaths – along with all the crime from violent gangsters fighting to control a lucrative trade and desperate addicts funding habits through theft – the response of successive British governments has been shameful. Those grotesque fatality figures, leaving so many grieving families, expose the legacy of selfish political irresponsibility. Their timidity is even more disturbing when a stream of reports from advisers and select committees demonstrate a dawning awareness at Westminster that prohibition has backfired with awful consequences, especially in the most deprived communities. One review, admitting that billions are spent on enforcement although drug seizures had little impact on availability, even warned of “potential unintended consequences …such as violence related to drug markets”.

Yet ministers, fearing a few bad headlines, continue to add more substances to the controlled drugs list while trying to thwart Scottish efforts to tackle this public health crisis through decriminalisation and safe consumption facilities. The first such unit – allowing injection of drugs under medical supervision and offering treatment – will open soon in Glasgow after a long legal battle. No one sees them as a silver bullet to solve all problems, but as the home affairs committee reported, there is evidence from 16 countries on three continents they can help. “We think they condone illegal drug use,” bleated prime minister Rishi Sunak in response. No wonder at least 14 police forces, fed up with political stasis, have adopted schemes to divert people caught in possession of drugs to harm reduction interventions rather than sending them into the criminal justice system.

As I have seen reported in the US, political attitudes changed towards “the war on drugs” when struck by an opioid epidemic that has killed more citizens than two world wars and left five million Americans fighting addiction. The death nine weeks ago of another film star highlights how this curse can afflict even the most gilded figures. Matthew Perry, famed for his role in Friends, died aged 54 after ketamine led him to pass out and drown in a hot tub. This charismatic actor had spoken in unflinching detail of developing addiction to pain medication after a jet ski accident, then spending more than half his life in treatment and rehab. The only real difference between him and other victims was an ability to spend millions of dollars trying to tackle his demons.

Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid mainly made by Mexican cartels, has unleashed an even darker tide of death across north America in recent years. Europe largely avoided this drug, resulting in 10 times fewer overdose deaths. Yet now there are chilling signs this might be changing after the Taliban slashed heroin production in Afghanistan, creating a predictable supply void, ready to be filled with synthetic drugs. “This could be just as catastrophic as we’ve seen in the US – and there is no enforcement solution to the synthetic opioid threat, which is direct consequence of the dynamics of an illegal market,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

The problem is not just fentanyl. Nitazenes, another super-strong synthetic opioid first seen in this country two years ago, has been linked to 54 deaths in Britain in the past six months, with 40 more cases being probed. In Birmingham, where 16 fatalities occurred in two months, the director of public health told the BBC this might be a “turning moment in the drug market”. There were warnings about an influx of the drug in Scotland, Wales and the north-east of England in the run-up to Christmas.

So will our political leaders continue to pose pathetically as drug warriors even as these lethal new drugs flood our shores, ravage communities, traumatise families and cause pointless deaths, rather than adopting pragmatic policies rooted on harm reduction rather than stigmatisation and punishment? Or are they simply parasites on our body politic, oblivious to the unfolding carnage?

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