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Mile End Institute

'Talking to politicians about drugs doesn't work, it just makes things worse ...'

Following this summer's Drug Possession White Paper, Jay Jackson argues that the Government needs to adopt a multi-departmental approach to tackle the 88 per cent increase in drug deaths in the UK since 2010. 

Photo of used needles on pavement in Glasgow to illustrate article about drugs policy
Estimated Reading Time: 4-6 minutes.

Drug policy isn't about drugs. It's about people. This is true for almost all areas of policy, of course, but, when deep in debates about the merits of decriminalisation or avoiding corporate capture in legally regulated markets, those advocating for progressive reforms to our laws on drugs can often lose sight of this simple truth. 

It might be called 'drug policy', but really, it's about so much more than just the substances themselves. It is a combination of economic policy, social policy, health policy, education policy, justice policy, even foreign policy, that comes together when formulating our legal and political positions on drugs. Or at least that's how it should be. 

The sad reality - particularly over the last twelve years, but realistically ever since drug policy started to become a notable policy area in the late 1980s - is that a holistic, cross-departmental approach has been shamefully absent. Instead, we've had a narrow focus on criminalisation, prohibition, and abstinence that has come at considerable human and financial cost. 

Drug deaths have increased by 88 per cent since 2010, with an all-time high of 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning recorded in England and Wales last year - the ninth consecutive record figure and more than all deaths from road traffic accidents and knife crime combined. Add to this the figures from Scotland - still Europe's drug deaths capital, recording 1,330 deaths in 2021, giving it a death rate almost four times higher than its nearest competitor, Norway, and fifteen times higher than the EU average - and it's clear that the UK has a hidden drug deaths crisis. 

These deaths are only hidden in a figurative sense. Away from mainstream public and political conscience, the drug death epidemic troubles few beyond drug policy circles, despite the visual reality of drug use, overdose, and death being clearly on show in alleyways, underpasses, and city centres up and down the country. In plain sight, yet out of mind. 

UK drug deaths are largely the result of opiate use, which often has complex causes including trauma, mental health problems, genetic factors, poverty, and a family history of drug abuse. There is no silver bullet solution to ending the drug death epidemic, but criminalisation and prohibition have proven cruel, counterproductive, and costly. If you had a relative with a problematic relationship with drugs, would you want them to have an appointment with a doctor, or a day in court? 

Only a multi-departmental approach with input from across governments can really grapple with the human, social, and financial cost of drugs to society and put an end to the drug death epidemic. We need to stop conceptualising 'drug policy' as a standalone policy area. 

Photo of the Logo and Contact details for the Government's Talk to Frank serviceDrugs and our relationship with them should be a part of education policy. Current government guidance only requires children be taught about drugs for 1 hour during their entire time at secondary school. The same guidance also makes clear to teachers that they should not direct children to the Talk to Frank website, a government funded service designed to provide information to young people about drugs.

If we want our young people to make safer, more informed judgments about their use of drugs then we need to treat them like they’re able to do so and accept the reality that a level of drug use is inevitable. There is and never has been such thing as a drug free society.

Drugs and our relationship with them should be a part of health policy. Responsibility for drug policies should sit within the Department of Health & Social Care to symbolise the shift towards a health-based approach to drugs, as opposed to a crime and punishment approach. Evidence-led best practice from around the globe (such as the establishment of overdose prevention centres and the provision of drug checking services at festivals) should be implemented to save lives.

Drugs and our relationship with them should be part of economic policy. Problematic drug use, in particular, is almost always about poverty - either directly or indirectly - and has severe economic consequences with the cost of the 'War on Drugs' to the UK economy estimated to be a staggering £22 billion per year. To put that in context, that is enough to fund an entire Crossrail-sized infrastructure project ever single year.

There is also a clear link between so-called 'left behind' areas and drug deaths, with the 10 local authority areas with the most drug overdose deaths between 2018 and 2020 containing 24 'left behind' neighbourhoods - over 10 per cent of the nationwide total. That is why I have argued that the (now probably abandoned ...) 'Levelling Up' agenda must seek to 'level down' drug deaths. 

So, why hasn't this happened? Frustratingly, drug policy still sits within the Home Office's remit. In addition to being increasingly ineffective and burdened with too many disparate responsibilities, the Home Office is also institutionally averse to progressive reforms on drug policy. Take for example, the debacle surrounding cannabis reclassification during the New Labour years, or this summer's confused Drugs White Paper, and you get a sense of the stranglehold of the 'crackdown' mindset at Marsham Street.

There is also a lingering stigma amongst politicians about drugs and people who use them, despite so many frontline politicians having admitted to using drugs themselves. MPs avoid entering into theoretical debates about systemic change because their understanding and experience of drugs is mainly informed by constituency surgeries in which drug use is equated with anti-social behaviour. 

Finally, there is a firmly entrenched and unchallenged received wisdom about the public's views on drugs. Until recently, there existed an unchallenged consensus that the general public were strongly averse to progressive drug reforms, particularly in the areas like the 'Red Wall' that now matter most in our First Past the Post system.

Promotional Material from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform arguing that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is 'no longer fit for purpose'However, recent polling by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform found that 'Red Wall' voters were, in fact, more likely to support reforms such as drug testing services and naloxone provision than the general population. Other polls have consistently shown the public to be ahead of politicians on the major questions of drug policy such as the legalisation of cannabis. 

If those of us campaigning for desperately needed reforms want to maximise our chances of causing change then maybe we need to stop talking about drug policy reform and start talking about everything else. 

Jay Jackson is Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Volteface and Secretariat of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform.



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