The Damning Consequences of a Prohibitionist’s Approach to Drugs
Undoing five decades of misery caused by the UK’s drug policy
Crispin Blunt | | Opinion
When I was Prisons Minister between 2010 and 2012, I had my eyes opened to the scale of the UK’s drug policy problem. I saw the appalling burden put on the justice system when drug users are treated as criminals, rather than people with health issues to be addressed. I realized then that, if we were to change the attitude of the establishment, we would need voices in the reasonable center to bring drug policy reform from the fringes to the mainstream.
I set up the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group to stimulate debate on the political center-right. Our purpose is to become an authoritative voice on drug policy in the UK by sharing peer-reviewed academic contributions. Politicians and their allies in the media have been able to get away with a sneering dismissal of reformers; now, just discrediting them as “a bunch of pot smokers” is not good enough – it is time we deal with the evidence.
As it stands, the government’s drug policy is not working. Its effectiveness is contradicted by its own evidence. Consider the direct costs associated with the criminal justice implications of our prohibitionist approach alone: over half of acquisitive crime in the United Kingdom is driven by drug policy. Is that really a sign of success? We also have the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe. It is no wonder that countries such as Portugal and Switzerland are doing significantly better on both accounts – because their legislators have agreed on a “public health first” approach.
That is not even taking into account missed opportunities from prohibiting medical use of cannabis and psychedelics. We’ve got half a century’s loss of research and science into the application of these drugs and their compounds that could have been making huge benefits to public health.
The reality is that politicians classified these drugs as Schedule 1 substances simply because of their reputations. Pop stars like psychedelics, so they must be bad – ergo must be banned. Worse, the basis of cannabis prohibition stems from racist sentiment towards Black Americans. There is little evidential basis for the scheduling of these drugs. (Although there are risks, as there are with all substances, they are much lower than those of other drugs.) The media have supported politicians and refused to challenge policy. Indeed, popular coverage has only perpetuated hysterical headlines that reinforce an appetite for criminal justice. We have failed to look down from our moral high mountain into the valleys and see the consequences of our policies. We have blinded ourselves to the damage they have done.
People who use drugs are considered problematic. Many are so frightened of ending up in jail that they avoid public health institutions that may be able to offer them support. By treating users as criminals, we have unintentionally produced an alliance between users and the supply chain – a business we have effectively turned into an organized crime outfit worth US$500 billion a year. If we had a licensed and regulated drug policy, we would be able to remove the criminal element from the supply chain, making it infinitely easier to control access to these substances and protect those who choose to partake.
So how do we do that? With persistence and authority on the side of reformers. It is heartening to see that public and parliamentary opinion appears to be changing. People understand that our system is broken. Our current approach will soon become a minority position – and I am hopeful that we will see change, even if it takes a depressingly long time.
People want to use drugs. Do we really think that making drugs illegal will change millennia of human experience? Imposing decisions about substances onto those who use them will only make things worse. We need to work with the human experience, not against it, by introducing sensible regulation, licensing, and controls. We will never achieve total abstinence by the population – nor should we try to – but we can reduce the damage punitive drug policy has caused. If people can be alerted to the dangers of drugs authoritatively, they are much more likely to engage with them in a sensible way.
I don’t consider myself either pro or anti-drug – I’m for intelligent policy that protects people and society. Ultimately, the only effective regulations are based on evidence – not idealism, prejudice or religious fervor – and never used as a political football.