The UK's anti-science drug strategy causes misery and costs lives

Peter Reynolds
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The report is blind to the great benefits that many people gain from safe drug use (Source: Getty)

The long overdue update to the UK Drug Strategy was published by the Home Office last Friday. Sadly, as expected, it is nothing but more of the same.

It offers no new ideas worthy of note, while reinforcing the failures of existing policy by further embedding an approach which has already been conclusively proven both fallible and facile.

The UK has become increasingly isolated in its approach to drugs policy, especially now that both Ireland and France are moving towards decriminalisation. We are unique among modern democracies in maintaining an approach based on nothing but prohibition.

Read more: Farron may be a political dunce, but legalising cannabis is sensible policy

In fact, we now stand closer to countries such as Russia, China, Indonesia, and Singapore. The only thing that separates us from countries with such medieval policies is our lack of the death penalty for drug offences.

Otherwise our policy is just as repressive, anti-evidence, anti-human rights, and based on prejudice – rather than on strategies that are proven to work.

With such pithy rubrics as “Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply and Building Recovery”, it’s clear that this so-called strategy is but a continuation of tired platitudes, bureaucratic doublespeak, and meaningless Whitehall jargon.

Current UK drug policy has already led to the highest ever rate of deaths from overdose. Deaths from heroin more than doubled from 2012 to 2015, yet there is absolutely nothing offered in this document that might improve the situation.

Similarly, in what would be farcical humour were it not so tragic, the government seeks to portray the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 as a success. It trumpets the closure of hundreds of retailers and websites, and the end to open sales, yet fails to mention the burgeoning new criminal market which has led to the proliferation of products which are more potent, inconsistent, and unpredictable than the previously legal versions they have replaced.

All the experts (except those appointed by the government) agree that the 2016 law has been a disaster.

The strategy just released does not even consider harm reduction, offering only a puritanical, moralistic approach based on abstinence. It fails entirely to recognise that 95 per cent of all drug use is non-problematic, without causing harm to anybody.

The report is entirely focused on misuse, and blind to the great benefits – often therapeutic but also simply of pleasure and recreation – that many people gain from safe drug use. These people – the vast majority – are completely ignored by their government.

By its own title, this is a drug strategy, not a drugs strategy. It treats all drugs and all drug users the same, whether they are a prisoner serving a long sentence without access to education or rehabilitation, a ruthless gangster engaged in human trafficking, an affluent clubber, a humble festival goer, or a multiple sclerosis patient who grows a few cannabis plants for pain relief. It is a travesty of government, failing entirely to meet the needs of the population.

It also contains some of the most extraordinary factual errors and contradictions. “Most cannabis in the UK is imported”, it states in defiance of the evidence that the UK has been virtually self-sufficient in homegrown cannabis since the 1990s, even to the extent where we are “exporting” to other European countries.

Unsurprisingly, the report states: “we have no intention of decriminalising drugs”. It then makes the dubious assertion that “drugs are illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health”.

This is simply unsustainable in face of the facts about the harms caused by legal substances such as alcohol, peanuts and energy drinks. It is also inconsistent with the stated purpose of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which concerns misuse “having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.” Nothing to do with individual health harms.

The report fails completely to consider the negative effects of current policy and how prohibition, rather than substances, is actually the cause of most harms connected with drug use. It does not even mention the worldwide revolution in the medical use of cannabis, or that one million UK citizens are criminalised and placed in danger of criminal sanctions or contaminated product simply for trying to improve their health.

Neither does it mention that drug testing, a proven method of reducing the harms of club drugs, is now being supported by many police forces at festivals.

This report really is as empty, ineffectual and useless as anything produced by the Cameron team. Thousands are dying every year because Theresa May and Amber Rudd won’t listen to evidence.

It is yet another inadequate response imposed by a government which is out of touch and wedded to policies based on ideology rather than evidence.

Read more: ­Are the Lib Dems right to propose a legalised cannabis market for the UK?

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