Has the UK’s approach to drug use failed?

Is it time for decriminalisation?

Words by Jodie Sutton, Photography by Maya Bond-Webster.

At present, it is illegal to possess any amount of drugs for personal use. In spite of this, there is evidence to show that strict drug laws typically have little or no effect on lowering the volume of drug use and abuse. 

Photo: Maya Bond-Webster

Over the years, deepening confusion, sensationalism and prohibition of drugs has coincided with an increased drug use; A recent report showed that in the past year, a record number of people took class A drugs. It was suggested that increased cocaine and ecstasy use by 16 to 24 year olds sparked this rise. 8.5 percent of adults aged 16-59 in 2016-17 admitted to taking illicit drugs. Drug deaths are at their highest since 1993, and hospital admissions for poisoning by illicit drugs are 40 per cent higher than 10 years ago.

A recent survey carried out by the National Union of Students found that 39% of students admitted to using drugs, with a further 17% admitted to using them in the past. They found that commonly, ending criminal action for possession was advocated so that young people would feel confident to seek help without fear of punishment.

This year, a call for radical change to UK drugs policy emerged from the Health Committee of MP’s, which acknowledged that the UK’s war on drugs is failing. Although 45% of acquisitive crime is carried out by offenders who regularly use heroin and cocaine, and that “cartels and dealers leave a worldwide trail of misery, death and corruption”; the committee advocated decriminalising drug possession for personal use. They even suggested ‘drug consumption rooms’ as another approach to harm reduction, where people can use drugs in a sterile, clean environment with medical supervision in case of emergency.

Pragmatic solutions have led to rewarding results in Portugal; after decriminalising possession and consumption of drugs in 2001, the country has since seen drug related deaths reduced to three per million compared with the UK’s 40 per million, and have seen a dramatic decrease in overall drug addiction and associated crime. These solutions are also beginning to be followed by Switzerland and Norway.

There is also progress being made in the UK; The Loop is a non-profit company established in 2013 which provides drug testing, welfare and harm reduction services at nightclubs, festivals and other events. In an effort to reduce harm from mis-sold or high-strength substances, The Loop allowed festival attendees to test a sample of their drugs, only giving the results after a 15 minute, one-on-one consultation with a harm-reduction professional. Last year, more than 8,000 people (1 in 10 festival goers) came forward to have their drugs tested by The Loop at music festivals in the UK. It’s time to stop thinking about the country’s issues with drug use as a ‘war’. For a country that prides itself on progressive attitudes, how much further does our drug situation need to worsen before we accept our current model isn’t working? It’s high time that the government seriously considered a form of decriminalisation, and a shift towards further evidence-based harm reduction in addiction.

Featured image: Maya Bond-Webster

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