The Drugs Policy Don’t Work

First published in Huffington Post

There were record seizures of class A drugs into the UK last year. According to the National Treatment Agency, there are 10,000 fewer addicts seeking treatment than there were two years previously. But the fact that border officials found 2,116kg of cocaine and 773kg of heroin between April and September is hardly in itself cause for celebration. On the contrary, the evident and continued – if not increasing – demand for these drugs points both to the depths of the drug problem and to the futility of its criminalisation. Reportedly, the UK spends more, proportionally, on drug prevention than any other country in Europe. The sentences for those supplying drugs are as stiff as they come.

And yet there were estimated to be around 3 million users of illicit drugs in 2009/10. The authors of a piece in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free rightly point out that the criminalisation of drugs is long and widely acknowledged to have failed, and that it is time to try a different approach. They go on to argue that we should look to The Science. But the likes of David Nutt, the government’s former drugs adviser – sacked precisely because he thought the experts were better placed to make policy decisions than our elected representatives – are tripping on the news that magic mushrooms might heighten wellbeing for depressives. They are not, it would seem, best placed to make a principled case against the use and abuse of drugs.

According to Nutt’s fellow academics at Imperial College London, test subjects described a ‘loss of connectivity’ and a state of consciousness that is ‘less constrained by inputs from the outside world’. Whatever the merits of the research and the benefits this particular drug might hold out for those suffering from clinical depression; the subjects may, inadvertently, have stumbled upon the problem with drugs, and the problem with the arguments for decriminalisation made by its more spaced-out advocates.

A disconnect from the wider world is not just an emergent property of hallucinogenic drugs; it is also an argument against their use. Similarly, those who hide behind The Science to defend the decriminalisation of drugs, also tend to exhibit a studied withdrawal from any wider political or moral debate. Which is precisely the opposite of what is required. It is only by engaging in an open public debate about the rights and wrongs of the matter that we are likely to get beyond a policy that – I think we can all agree – doesn’t work.

For that reason the fact that Richard Branson, (albeit the archetypal hippy entrepreneur) has appeared at a House of Commons home affairs committee inquiry in an effort to make the case, is a good thing. As are new sentencing guidelines recommending much greater leniency for recreational users. The guidelines also, rightly, recognise that so-called drug ‘mules’ are often impoverished middlemen rather than the sinister types we imagine. However, we are told that it is the poor women that we should feel sorry for. They have fallen victim to and been exploited by the dealers and gangs, according to the kindly judiciary.

Campaigners need better arguments than this if they are to go beyond the patronising view that those caught up in the drugs trade are helpless and pathetic; or to get beyond dopey assertions about the supposed health benefits of getting high. The seeming libertarianism of many advocates for the liberalisation of drug policy is largely illusory. I’d much rather hear a good life-affirming defence of the criminalisation of drugs, than be fed the victim-centred therapeutics cooked up on a spoon by campaigners for its decriminalisation. The sooner they put down their spliffs and re-engage with the world around them the better.