For the first time in a long while, the Conservatives have done something worthwhile: they’ve opened the floor for Labour to have a better conversation about drugs. The current Labour leadership prides itself on challenging the status quo. Well, UK drug policy is long overdue a shake-up. The war on drugs has utterly failed, as Labour peer and ex-Lord chancellor Charles Falconer admitted last year alongside an apology for his role in enforcing it. The black market has done nothing but grow; people have not been deterred from selling or taking drugs – record amounts of cocaine are being seized in Europe – and drug-related harm is on the rise. Scotland has the highest drug death rate in the whole of Europe.
It is good that Labour recently supported the trial of consumption rooms where addicts can take drugs under medical supervision. Such rooms have been proven to reduce drug-related deaths elsewhere in Europe. But on the whole the party has been too quiet on re-examining how the UK classifies narcotics in the first place. This is despite the fact that a number of other countries have reclassified recreational drugs, with great results.
Last year some momentum had built around the idea of reforming Labour’s drug policy. MPs Thangham Debbonaire and Jeff Smith launched the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform while party members have been encouraged to contribute ideas to help shape party policy. But with several Conservative leadership contenders making the headlines for admitting to taking drugs, there have been moves in the opposite direction, including calls for all MPs to be regularly drugs-tested. This is a sentiment that stands in stark contrast to the vast numbers of British police officers and medical professionals calling for the decriminalisation. With drugs back on the agenda, Labour must seize this moment and lead a progressive, national conversation on reforming our laws – before another party gets there first.
Across the UK, attitudes towards drugs are said to be relaxing. That is not to suggest Labour should be moving to legalise hallucinogenics by the end of its first year in power. That would be inconceivable for people who have been told their whole lives to ‘just say no’. A dialogue needs to be opened first. But for this to be done productively, left-leaning politicians and policy wonks alike must stop treating drugs as a taboo subject. Instead they should openly engage with the mountains of evidence that suggests, first, that certain illicit drugs have been incorrectly classified and second, that decriminalising, or legalising, regulating and taxing drugs has actually been more beneficial to users, society and the economy.
It might well be argued that with so many other very serious issues to deal with – such as the millions of UK children currently living in poverty – drug reform shouldn’t be high on Labour’s priority list. But the war on drugs is costing each UK taxpayer approximately £400 a year; money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Moreover, our legal framework disproportionately affects the people our party claims to represent: the most vulnerable, those living in poverty and black and minority ethnic communities. Because it is a criminal offence to possess illegal drugs, users are less likely to access health and social support services. The Home Office has rejected plans to allow for ‘safe injection’ rooms for addicts in Glasgow – but it is lower-income drug users that are more likely to die of an overdose. People of colour are also more heavily policed and arrested for drug-related offences. Black people, despite using cannabis at a lower rate, are 12 times more likely to be sentenced for possession than their white counterparts. And because of our laws, people with serious health conditions are being denied life-saving cannabis oil treatment – mother Julie Galloway has spoken out about being forced to live in Rotterdam to access a version of cannabis oil that is crucial to saving her child’s life but illegal here in the UK. Meanwhile white Conservative politicians can admit to taking Class A drugs with no legal repercussions. It proves, once again, that the more privileged sections of society seem to be beyond the law.
The way in which we have criminalised certain drugs is neither fair nor sensible. Yet experts who have spoken out about this have been silenced. Professor David Nutt, who was the government’s chief drug adviser, was sacked after claiming that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and cannabis. Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of a drugs advice charity who has pushed for a more open, sensible, evidence-based UK drug policy, was blocked from advising the Conservative government because of concerns that she would be ‘hard to work alongside’.
Currently in the UK, under the 1971 misuse of drugs act, drugs are divided into one of three classes based on their perceived harmfulness – A, B and C. The act is the main basis of British drugs law, with controlled substances such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD bracketed under Class A and cannabis, for instance, reclassified in 2008 as Class B. Our laws attempt to tackle both the supply and demand side of the drugs trade. It is an offence to produce, sup-ply and export drugs, but users are also penalised, with the maximum sentence for possession of a Class A drug being up to seven years. Crucially, analysis proves there is almost no correlation between overall associated harm and the class of drugs.
Our prohibitionist approach to drugs policy in the UK – and in many nations worldwide – has its legal foundation in the United Nations (UN) drug treaties of 1961, 1971 and 1988. In 1961, the UN took a moral stance against drugs, arguing that “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind”. More than 150 countries ratified into law a hard-line stance against a range of psychoactive substances with the intent to regulate both supply and demand – the ultimate aim being the creation of a ‘drug-free world’. Despite their dangers, neither alcohol or tobacco were to be controlled by the UN. Interestingly, it was the economies with key interests in the alcohol industry – the United States and Europe – that had the most power in establishing global norms at the end of the 20th century, as Professor Sue Pryce revealed in her groundbreaking book Fixing Drugs.
And this is worth underlining: the recreational sub-stances that have been controlled have always reflected the cultural and economic interests of the dominant powers at the time. Power is key to understanding what has been deemed acceptable or not. This was true in the 1800s when Western powers suddenly turned against opiates to damage Chinese economic interests. We saw it too in the early 20th century in the West with cocaine and opiates being criminalised after much of their use shifted from middle-class women to working-class men. In the UK, a tougher stance on cannabis came into play after the drug was associated with West Indian immigrants. And we see power in play too in today’s international disapprobation of the Andean states that use and produce coca, despite its similarities to tobacco. This is why the current legal framework is not necessarily reflective of which drugs are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. It is not rooted in science.
Over the last decade a vast number of countries have accepted the evidence that drug classifications are inaccurate and that prohibition has caused more harm than good to users and society. Among the countries changing tack are the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Uruguay and Canada. Their progressive policies have led to a wealth of benefits including huge decreases in the number of drug-related deaths, improved health outcomes for users, with the Netherlands, for example, generating more than £300m a year from taxing recreational substances. With this in mind, it really is surprising that a Labour party dedicated to ‘doing things differently’ in countless other policy areas is still so stuck in the past.