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#studentviews: Is it time to consider decriminalising drugs in the UK?

With the recent sharp rise in drug-related deaths in the UK, the government should consider radical policy action to halt a public health crisis. One option would be to draw on lessons from abroad and decriminalise recreational narcotics.

Years of futile efforts to eradicate the use of drugs in the UK has only exacerbated vicious circles of crime and poverty. Change is necessary.

Decriminalisation would focus on harm reduction, rehabilitation and reframing how society views drug users. Healthcare services and the criminal justice system would endure less stress, freeing up money that the government can redirect into treatment and community services. Further, rehabilitation and reintegration of previous drug users back into the workforce would have a positive effect on the individuals in question, their employers and the government.

Among the UK public, views on drug addicts are progressive. A sample from YouGov finds that 49% of people feel that those ‘who have addictions to illegal substances should be treated as those who are mentally ill would be treated’. Just 19% are against this view. So, UK policy-makers should consider what the electorate want, and investigate a more liberal approach.

As the cost of living crisis continues, the Resolution Foundation expects 1.3 million people to fall into absolute poverty. Evidence suggests that higher levels of poverty result in higher rates of addiction. This is not because of choice or physical dependence, but more a result of social exclusions such as structural disadvantages and limited opportunities. In 2004, Julian Buchanan (Victoria University of Wellington) said that what is needed is ‘social integration not social reintegration, they need “habilitation” not rehabilitation’.

Drug misuse is costing society an enormous £19.3 billion a year, 86% of which is attributable to the health and crime-related costs of the heroin and crack cocaine markets. These findings by Dame Carol Black extend to explain that only 3% is spent on treatment and prevention, despite Public Health England reporting that every pound spent on drug treatment saves £2.50 in costs to society. If the government were to invest in social policies, there would be better social outcomes for all, including communities feeling safer.

Portugal became the first country to decriminalise drug use in 2001, attempting to turn around an opioid epidemic. A 2014 report found that Portugal’s per capita social cost of drug misuse decreased by 18%.

This success is thanks to investment in prevention and social care schemes. A report in the Guardian explains that one support scheme offers a drop-in centre with ‘psychologists, doctors and peer support workers offering clean needles, crack kits… rapid HIV testing, and consultations’. This emphasis on harm reduction enabled Portugal’s yearly new HIV rate per million to fall by 95.97% between 2000 and 2015.

Analysis in the New York Times finds that Portugal now has the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe, with a mortality rate a tenth of the UK's and a fiftieth of the United States’. Portugal’s improvements are starkly different to the UK, where drug-related deaths are at a record high, having seen a 75.6% increase from 2012 to 2020. These statistics should alarm the UK government: decriminalising drugs could save thousands of lives.

Researchers at the London School of Economics have found that austerity measures have been a driver of these outcomes, with areas experiencing the biggest cuts to social care and housing services seeing the highest death tolls. This is a serous concern in the context of the current cost of living crisis and the lack of support from the government.

It could culminate in greater poverty, crime and inequality, all of which are in a vicious circle with drug use. If poverty continues to increase, health and policing services will face a further strain.

A concern of those opposed to decriminalising drugs is a potential increase in drug use, as consequences weaken significantly. But Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens (Drug Policy Alliance) find little evidence of this in Portugal, where usage has stayed relatively constant while seeing ‘a reduction in problematic usage, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding’.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, proposed a trial that would decriminalise cannabis in three London boroughs in January 2022, but this is yet to be approved. Despite criminal justice and public health experts responding positively, the government believes otherwise, with former minister Priti Patel claiming that drugs ‘ruin communities, tear apart families and destroy lives’.

The current government made a ten-year plan to combat drug-related crime in 2021. One proposed policy involved removing passports and driving licences from middle class ‘lifestyle’ users of class A drugs. It should be noted that a dozen sites inside the Palace of Westminster tested positive for traces of cocaine in 2021.

UK policy-makers have been found to break laws over and over again. Why do we allow them to continue legislating laws that seem to contradict expert evidence? For such a serious issue as drug abuse, which results in thousands of deaths, political standpoints should be left aside and let protecting human life come first.

Author: Jake Taibel
Editor’s note: This article is from the University of Bristol’s communicating economics class of 2022-23.
Picture by BrianAJackson on iStock
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