The UK is, whether we like it or not, a nation of drug users. We lead Europe in the abuse of cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy, and come at the top of the table for use of amphetamines and cannabis, despite all of these substances being illegal. The cost of this is immense, be it the taxes that we have to pay to hold back the tide of drug use, social damage to the communities that have to deal with drug-related crime, or the emotional damage to those who lose friends and loved ones to substance abuse.
Drug use in the UK is clearly a problem, and so the question facing policy makers today is how to solve our epidemic. Rather worryingly, total decriminalisation of drugs is often touted as the route to our salvation. The drug legalisation lobby claim that this would solve all of our troubles, for if we only legalised drugs we could control and regulate them for the betterment of society, reduce crime, reduce drug use, and probably raise taxes from the legal sale of drugs. Besides, the incredibly oppressive and punitive “war” on innocent drug users has failed to curb drug use and its damaging effects, and so surely decriminalisation is the only solution to Britain’s drug problem?
If only this were the case. Firstly, we have plenty of examples that demonstrate that the legalisation of drugs does nothing to reduce drug use. Lifetime drug use in Portugal, Europe’s oft touted drug utopia, has risen substantially since they decriminalised drugs, as has their homicide rate. Colorado, too, one of the first US states to legalise marijuana, has seen drug overdoses increase dramatically in all of its counties, and it remains the only state with problems with heavy consumption of the four major intoxicants (marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, and opioids). I’m also not convinced that crime would reduce following any decriminalisation of drugs; both cigarettes and alcohol are legal in the UK, and yet the Government spends a lot of time and resources combatting the criminals that smuggle illicit cigarettes into the country, or manufacture and distribute illicit types of alcohol. Again, Colorado is instructive: they still have illegal sellers that attract their customers by supply ing their drugs under the legal (and taxed) price. If we were to decriminalise drugs, they would not disappear from the streets of the UK, and nor would crime reduce – we would simply be left with an even bigger problem than before.
Other petty arguments for drug legalisation really don’t hold water. Yes, we could raise money for the exchequer by taxing the legal sale of drugs, but there are other ways to raise state revenue that don’t involve flooding British streets with drugs.
Reversing slashes to Corporation Tax would be a good start: maybe then the police would have the resources to actually tackle crime. Also, controlling and regulating a substance doesn’t automatically make it safe. Taking drugs is dangerous, and there’s not much you can do about those risks. Alcohol and tobacco are both heavily regulated, but that doesn’t stop our hospitals spending billions on illnesses that are directly linked to their use. Health problems from drug use would not disappear following their decriminalisation.
Moreover, the war on drugs hasn’t failed: law enforcement just isn’t fighting one. According to the Home Office, “it remains illegal for UK residents to possess cannabis in any form”, but the government website subsequently concedes that possession of cannabis doesn’t actually entail prosecution or prison; you might get a fine (less than most parking penalties), but you’re far more likely to be issued a “cannabis warning,” a legally vacuous term that doesn’t result in a criminal record, and thus amounts to a slap on the wrist, if that.
Further, given that the vast majority of people in prison for drug related offences are only there for supply, neither possession or use of drugs (whater class they are) is greatly discouraged, again preventing the war on drugs from having any real effect. If we need any evidence of this, we need only look to our nation’s music festivals, that permit drug taking to such a degree that they are willing to test drugs for their attendees free of charge, without any legal consequences for, you know, possessing incredibly harmful and illegal substances. The UK hasn’t had a punitive or even unsuccessful war on drugs; we’re simply refusing to fight one.
I contend that if law enforcement took drug offences seriously, and took possession as seriously as intent to supply, we would see a welcome and sorely needed decrease in drug abuse in this country. This is not wishful thinking, as there are many countries that have successfully curbed their drug problems by performing the revolutionary act of actually enforcing their laws. A 2014 Home Office study into international responses to the “drug problem” noted that Japan “operates a strong enforcement-led approach to drug misuse, often regarded as a ‘zero tolerance’ policy” and that “Possession of even small amounts of drugs is punishable by lengthy imprisonment.”
They were then forced to concede that drug use in Japan is far lower than in the UK, as if it were some sort of shock that citizens followed laws that were enforced. Countries such as Sweden and South Korea are also good examples, as their tough stance on drugs has also led to historically low rates of drug use in both nations. This is a clear example that we in the UK can follow: we just choose not to.
Britain is at a crossroads; we can either resign ourselves to the incredible cost of drug abuse, or we can take a stand a work to return to a clean society. To those of us who value law and order, security, and safety, there is only one option; to wage a sincere and effective war on drugs that punishes possession, eliminates supply, and deters individuals from taking illicit substances in the first place. Then, and only then, will the British drug epidemic end.