Prohibition kills. Why no progress on drugs policy?

Drugs policy is failing society’s most vulnerable, writes Joshua Harvey

Photo: ParentInfo

Across the world, there are encouraging signs of reform when it comes to drugs policy and public health. Some initiatives, such as the Portuguese model of blanket decriminalisation, have been running for decades, while others are still viewed as ‘experiments’. Many were born not from decrees passed down from high courts or the imagination of maverick ministers, but through the passionate campaigning of citizens.

Mexico especially has suffered bitterly at the hands of criminals and cartels, whose enterprises flourished under prohibition. Despite this, the country has seen a dramatic shift from a hard-line ‘just say no’ attitude, to one which instead prioritises patient health. In Argentina, a group of 136 families lobbied the Government for the right to treat their children with cannabis, and won. Back in Europe, Germany also gained its medical weed card this year, with unanimous cross-party support. Not so in Britain. The most recent piece of drugs legislation enacted in the UK, the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), has been described by the Government’s own former chief advisor on drugs as “the worst assault on personal freedom since the 1559 Supremacy Act decreed that the practice of Catholic beliefs was illegal.”

The Act criminalises the buying and selling of absolutely anything that gets you high, regardless of how harmful it is or isn’t, unless it’s one of a few exceptions: alcohol and tobacco (which by any measure are two of the most deadly and harmful substances), caffeine and, thankfully, food. This nonsensical legislation, rushed through to appease the tabloids without any consideration of scientific or medical advice, has been an unmitigated failure.

The majority of arrests made under the Act were for the possession and selling of nitrous oxide – the ‘laughing gas’ enjoyed unproblematically by the British aristocracy for over 200 years, and with a risk profile so safe it is routinely given to women in labour. When use started ballooning amongst young people in search for a hangover-free buzz, something had to be done, and fake news around nitrous oxide was a primary motivator for the PSA. But barely a year after the Act’s Royal Assent, two cases of possession with intent to supply have been thrown out of court, with the main target of the Act found to be exempt: a humiliating defeat for the Government that could be grounds for overturning numerous convictions.

Spice, on the other hand, is no laughing matter. The vague street name for synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, Spice has been destroying lives and communities since it first hit the streets the 2000s. This is not simply a synthetic version of cannabis –  a drug so physically safe that no-one has ever overdosed on it – but a highly addictive, physically destructive, and unpredictable cocktail of compounds soaked into plant matter, more often likened to heroin.

The PSA did succeed in closing down high-street head shops, where ‘legal highs’ were previously sold in at least a partially regulated and accountable way, diverting the supply chain to criminal gangs, who tend to care far less about  customer welfare. Surging prices have plunged dependent users into increasingly desperate situations, with researchers estimating a prevalence of up to 90-95% amongst some homeless populations.

Debates on whether to decriminalise or regulate drugs often distil down to whether drugs are harmful or not, and unfortunately human interest stories of addiction or adolescent deaths continue to dominate over the admittedly dry statistics. Still, this would be a useful exercise had we the power to decide if these drugs existed in the world, but we cannot even keep them out of maximum-security prisons.

If we care about the people who use drugs, which includes all classes, races, ages, and genders – so, all of us, really – we must instead be asking what is the best way to reduce the harms of drugs. This may not be equivalent to reducing use.

The government’s boast of falling usage rates, at the same time as record-high drug-related deaths, sounds as hollow as their bragging of high employment rates at a time of increasing in-work poverty and food bank use. Currently, a third of all European overdose deaths occur in Britain; each death a scandal that could be prevented with supervised drug consumption rooms.

There are promising signs from the periphery, with some local police forces either scaling back operations against personal use, or supporting harm-reduction groups such as the Loop, who provide drug safety testing at music festivals. But for anyone other than self-proclaimed, VICE-reading ‘humans of the sesh’, drugs just aren’t a political priority, with neither of the two main parties having anything new to say. Perhaps this is simply British politeness – it’s fine that we have one of the most drug-taking cultures in Europe, but let’s not talk about it.

This may be polite but it is also cowardly, and fails the most vulnerable in our society. If we really care, it’s high time we demand more from our politicians – more rationality, more progress, and more humanity.

Joshua Harvey is the co-founder of the Oxford Psychedelic Society

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