On Drug Decrim
First Published: Newsletter 09/03/20
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The War on Drugs has failed. Deaths from drug consumption are a public health emergency. The UK needs a new approach to drug policy, including decriminalising the possession of all recreational drugs.
It might shock you to learn that this call is taken not from the website of some fringe radical leftist group, but rather from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee. In October last year the Committee published a damning report laying bare the scale of the UK’s failures on drugs.
In 2018, there were 2,670 deaths in England that were directly attributed to drug misuse. This number was up 16% from the year before, and represents a death rate of more than three times the European average. The effects are even more stark in Scotland: the rate of drug-induced deaths in Scotland is almost double that of any other European country
This crisis is exacerbated by the consequences of a decade of cuts. To quote the report once more: “Following budget cuts of nearly 30% over the past three years, the Government must now direct significant investment into drug treatment services as a matter of urgency.” Not only has the current government pursued policies which have created a public health emergency; they have slashed to the bone the services which aim to tackle that emergency.
But the report also set out a way forward, based on the so-called Portugal model. This model is a public health approach to drugs, spearheaded by decriminalisation of psychoactive drugs, supplemented by the foregrounding of support and treatment services. The principle is simple: drug usage is not an issue of criminality, to be fought with draconian and systematically biased policies. Instead, we must understand it as a public health issue.
Our strategy for tackling the drugs public health crisis, known as “Portugal+”, builds on this approach. This strategy takes the decriminalisation of drugs as its starting point, and then builds around it all of the architecture needed to support those who our current policies have abandoned.
This means supervised clinics, where people can use drugs in a safe, controlled environment. This means providing adequate therapeutic and mental health services and making them accessible. This means social reintegration programmes so that those who have been sucked into the black market as low level distributors can transition back into education and unemployment.
Why should we adopt such a radical and (by UK standards) novel approach to drugs? First, because it works. After the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal, overdose deaths fell by 80%. The number of people entering treatment for drug abuse increased dramatically, and there was a huge drop in the number of new HIV infections.
And, contrary to what the advocates of harsh drug policies might say, these measures do not encourage a massive boom in drug taking. Studies in Switzerland found that only a very small percentage of people (less than 5%) who use Drug Consumption Rooms had their first injection there. In other words, the existence of these facilities does not lead to large numbers of people taking drugs that were previously illegal. Instead, they serve as an invaluable space for the treatment of drug abuse, and support vulnerable people who would otherwise be criminalised and forced into the margins of society.
There is a second, equally important motivation. The UK’s current approach to drugs reinforces racist and classist dynamics in our society. Who goes to prison on drugs charges: white, middle-class university students who smoke weed and do ket? No, of course not. It’s poor young men, it’s black teenagers, it’s people with mental health issues. The most vulnerable in our society are those who pay the highest price for our failed policies.
These are the people who the Labour Party exists to fight for. The very essence of our existence as a party and as a movement is that we stand up for those who do not have established power. When we identify cruel policies that punish those at the bottom of our society, it is our obligation to fight back against them. That means repealing the racist laws that underpin the war on drugs. That means creating a drug policy that actually protects the vulnerable in society. That means putting facts and empathy ahead of cruelty and judgement.
The UK needs drug decriminalisation, and it needs it now. Join Black Rose in our fight to make it happen.