Drugs policy: fifty years of failure

By Grahame Morris MP

I represent a former coalfield constituency. All too often I have seen people turn to drugs due to circumstances borne out of deprivation and despair.

When drug use becomes problematic, people turn to crime to finance their dependence. This spiral of despair, drugs and crime in my constituency was highlighted in the 2019 BBC Three documentary Canny Cops. The final episode depicted a harrowing death from drugs. The documentary portrayed the death of an addict from an overdose with a haunting inevitability. Personally, in such circumstances, I do not see a criminal; I see a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, with a health problem – addiction.

Drug death maps show a clear correlation between the worst-hit areas and areas with highest levels of deprivation. The situation demands action – ‘we must do something.’ The simple time-honoured solution to increasing numbers of drug deaths by ‘clamping down harder’ is the easy and popular knee-jerk reaction that has led to the 50 years of failure in UK drugs policy.

I have learned through experience to look at this issue in another way. Former ‘undercover cop’ Neil Woods, in his book Good Cop, Bad War, illustrated the senseless waste of police time and resources. Worse, it showed the harm caused by our nation’s current approach to drugs.

The late former Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, Ron Hogg, was an innovator, creating schemes such as ‘Checkpoint’ that offered positive and productive alternatives to prosecution. Ron did not have much time for those who played politics with drugs. He did not care about the views of the Daily Mail: he cared about people.

He wanted to address how best we can reduce harm – for the community, for an addicted drug user and for the future victims of crimes – and so reduce burglaries and thefts that fund addiction. Ron’s insight and rare care and compassion mean he is sadly missed. He was a progressive pioneer who was without equal.

Ron’s evidence-led approach used the best international examples to support drugs reform. In the 1990s, Portugal was in the grip of a drugs epidemic, with one of the worst drug death rates in Europe. In response to this public health emergency, a panel of experts – including doctors, lawyers, psychologists and social activists – devised a strategy including the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.

The death and crime rates dropped dramatically. Decriminalisation alone is not a silver bullet. The panel recommended having an honest discussion on prevention and education, providing access to evidence-based, voluntary treatment programs, adopting harm-reduction practices and investing in the social reintegration of people with drug dependence. The Portuguese philosophy is centered around the following assumptions:

· drugs and drug use are not inherently evil;

· a drug-free society is unattainable;

· people use drugs for various reasons; and

· punitive policies in themselves are unethical and ineffectual.

At meetings of the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Parliamentary Group, I regularly hear from professionals and practitioners on the front line of drug treatment provision. At a time of record drug deaths, drug services that save and transform lives are being cut and closed as the consequences of austerity have continued to bite.

These services divert drug users away from the criminal justice system and cost far less than the millions of pounds wasted through drugs crime, the cost of policing and sending people to court and to prison, time after time. It is estimated that drugs cost the UK economy £20bn, but just £600m is spent on treatment.

Britain now has the worst drug deaths record in Europe. Parts of the UK, including my own constituency, have some of the highest drug-related deaths in the world, and this country is being left behind as others across the world look at alternative approaches.

At a recent meeting of the parliamentary group we heard from Peter Krykant in Glasgow, who used a van to provide a clean and safe service for drug users because the law prevents Drug Consumption Rooms (more accurately described as Overdose Prevention Centres) being set up. Who is served by preventing the use of such evidence-based drug services? It is clear that only the criminal gangs that exploit users and control the market benefit from the current approach.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcaster Sophy Ridge on Sunday 21st February that current drug policy was “roughly right” because as Director of Public Prosecutions he’d seen the damage that drugs can do.

It is rough, but it ain’t right. No doubt the Labour leader prefers caution to controversy over an issue that has been considered through a ‘criminal justice’ lens for 50 years. The damage is caused by marginalising drug users, putting them outside of society and into the hands of an illicit drugs market controlled by organised crime gangs that abuse and exploit drugs users who have nowhere else to turn.

There is a widespread fear among politicians of media misrepresentation portraying any alternative view as being ‘soft on drugs – soft on crime’.

MPs have so many policy priorities and huge constituency caseloads, especially since Covid, so why rock the boat and speak out about drugs?

I urge Keir Starmer – and indeed all my colleagues – to take a little time to think about the huge weight of evidence that points to the need to reform our existing drugs policy. It is 50 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced, when a few thousand people were addicted – and now there are hundreds of thousands.

Britain has spent more than £200bn waging the ‘war on drugs.’ Fifty years of failure, futility and fatalities, leaving the dangerous, unregulated drugs market in the hands of organised crime. This can’t last another 50 years. If we don’t speak up now and question drug policy, when will we?

I hope fellow Parliamentarians will support this statement below by adding their names at campaign@mda50.org:

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) is not fit for purpose. For 50 years, it has failed to reduce drug consumption. Instead it has increased harm, damaged public health and exacerbated social inequalities. Change cannot be delayed any longer. We need reform and new legislation to ensure that future drug policy protects human rights, promotes public health and ensures social justice.

The ‘war on drugs’ has failed to protect the public or help people with substance misuse issues. A reassessment is long overdue. It is high time we looked through the lens of ‘public health’ rather than ‘crime and justice’. The Health and Social Care and Scottish Affairs Committees have had time to listen to evidence, and both their subsequent recommendations favoured a public health, rather than criminal justice, approach.

A sound evidence-based proactive response has been taken to save lives and protect our NHS during the Covid pandemic. Although the criminal justice enforcement aspect has been found wanting, it is clear from the evidence in other countries that a public health approach has been effective. Why don’t we take the same courageous and commonsense approach to drugs policy?

Grahame Morris has been the Labour MP for Easington since 2010.

Image: Official portrait of Grahame Morris. Source: https://beta.parliament.uk/media/thQ1nqSa. Author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_McAndrew, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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