Westminster’s drug policy is put to shame

Published by The i paper (10th July, 2023)

The state of British politics often induces despair. Westminster is hooked on playing pathetic tribal games and populated by self-centred politicians who chant vacuous slogans while profound problems are left to fester. It has sunk to such depressing depths that one minister even ordered an asylum reception centre to paint over a mural of cartoon characters on the grounds it was too welcoming for traumatised child arrivals. It is almost as if they get some kind of weird kick from these stunts, however cruel or infantile, while adopting a Mickey Mouse approach to policy even after persistent failure.

Nowhere is this destructive behaviour more glaring than on drug policy after half a century of epic state failure with lethal consequences. Deluded leaders think they look tough by pontificating about the perils of drugs, pledging to fight “yobs” and passing fresh laws to cram a few more troubled citizens into overcrowded prisons. Instead, they display only fear and weakness in the face of rampant drug use, rising purity of products, constant flow of new synthetic drugs and spiralling violence from thugs fighting to control the lucrative trade created by prohibition. This was seen yet again with the horrific killing of 26-year-old beautician Elle Edwards, mown down with a sub-machine gun in a feud between Merseyside gangs.

Half the murders in Britain – along with half the acquisitive crime – are tied to this trade in drugs outsourced by naive politicians to the most vicious gangsters. Even government reviews admit enforcement policies are futile and stoke such violence. Our country also accounts for one-third of drug-related deaths in Europe. Scottish statistics offer even more damning indictment of egregious failure with fatality rates 10 times higher than the rest of our continent. A surge in deaths through use of benzodiazepines north of the border came after a bout of media hysteria led to tightening of rules on legal prescriptions, which incentivised criminal gangs to develop a market for cheap but highly-potent street “blues”.

Similar blunders over the years have inflamed many problems linked to illicit drug use, addiction and criminality. Yet this chronic political ineptitude is made worse by politicians who deliberately stop initiatives based on proven evidence that can save lives. So how disgusting to see the Home Office step in last month to thwart testing of drugs for strength and content at festivals after a decade of successful initiatives. Even MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee have noted this approach reduced harm, urging the Government to “learn from New Zealand, which passed legislation to allow drug and substance testing services to operate legally over the summer festival season.” Instead, Suella Braverman wants to look hard for a future leadership bid; a few more corpses are simply collateral damage.

Last week the Scottish government set out a sensible plan to tackle drug-related deaths and cut violent crime by proposing to end the criminalisation of possession. Its report – which underlined how prohibition impacts hardest on poorest areas and minority ethnic communitiesd – rightly criticised the “historic policy failure” of the war on drugs as it set out “a more caring, compassionate and evidence-based approach.” Its strategy was based on safe use and treatment rather than punishment. It pointed to the success of Portugal, where such brave reform enabled the country with the biggest heroin problem in Europe at the turn of the century to slash drug-related deaths and curb drug use among younger generations.

This proposal was an important moment for Britain. Yes, the ruling Scottish National Party sets out to provoke rows with Westminster to underline its stumbling case for separation. But this report was correct to say drug decriminalisation in Scotland offered “an opportunity to do something different, something bold, progressive and evidence-based which would make a real difference to people’s lives.” Here was a rare chance for an innovative state policy, to test an idea proven to work abroad after decades of defeat on this battlefront. Besides, the devolved government is supposed to have responsibility for health and social policies on drug consumption.

Instead, with weary predictability, there was a shrill chorus of rapid rejection from both Tories and Labour, hiding behind constitutional arguments and jaded slogans rather than daring to debate the idea. The tone was set the day before when Rishi Sunak fired off a puerile tweet about “immediate punishment” for vandals and drug users, pointing to his risible ban on nitrous oxide on the basis of “putting an end to litter and intimidation in our parks.” Then “a source close to Braverman” trilled that “illegal drugs destroy lives and communities.” Decriminalisation was also ruled out by Labour, increasingly in thrall to the Blairite silliness of trying to outgun the Tories with endless criminal justice stunts. “I don’t think this sounds like a good policy,” responded Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves on a visit to Scotland.

Never mind 1,300 drug-related deaths in Scotland last year: Reeves said she found it “stunning” such reform was a priority for the Scottish Government when she was there “talking about the Tory mortgage bombshell.” This was not just astonishing arrogance. It underlined the pitiful way that so many politicians dismiss this issue of immense consequence for millions of citizens across the country, just as they do with the lip-service paid to deep-rooted problems in housing, mental health and social care. The SNP successfully exposed the pusillanimity of Labour and the Tories under their technocratic leaders, who duck genuine debate rather than dare confront the country’s most corrosive social problems. 

Privately, many Westminster politicians admit drug prohibition has failed, wasting money and lives. They can see winds of change blowing around the world. They hear the pleas for reform from bereaved parents, the demands for decriminalisation from doctors and police chiefs. But publicly, they blame everyone but themselves for all these deaths that could be avoided – and the blood staining their hands.

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