Drugs policy

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is time for the UK for re-evaluate its drug policy and overhaul drug offences.

Whether you like it or not the police are losing the battle against drugs such as cannabis, which is smoked openly on the streets.  I live in a reasonably well to do part of London.  Earlier this week I left my house and bumped into a man leaving a house around the corner.  I don't know him or anything about him other than he is white, around my age and smokes cannabis.  I know the latter because I saw and smelt him doing it.

Jump on a motorbike and ride around town - any part it doesn't matter - and you will smell cannabis being smoked in at least one car every traffic jam.  By traffic jam I pretty much mean any line of cars more than 100 yards long.  I've noticed this to be true across the capital.

When I act as custody court duty solicitor I can be guaranteed that if I actually get a punter there will be drugs involved somewhere.  Either they are an addict arrested for a drug offence or for stealing to obtain funds for drugs.  Or, they are a recovering drug addict who has become hooked on some other substance, usually alcohol - this is very common - and who is now committing crimes associated with alcohol.

In 1996, 5.5% of the 16-59 year old population reported using cannabis in the month prior to being questioned.  In 2012 that figure was 4.1%.  In the same period among the same population the numbers using cocaine in both powder and crack form have increased significantly from 0.3% for powder and 0.2% for crack to 1% of the population for each. Ecstasy in 1996 was used by 0.7% and in 2012 by 0.5%.  Heroin has remained stable at 0.1% both in 1996 and today.  The same is true for most other drugs.  You can download a copy of the figures from here.

I cannot find any reliable information about how much the police spend detecting drugs crime in the UK, but I imagine it is quite a bit.

We saw from prohibition on alcohol in the USA that banning something that is in demand leads to criminal gangs moving into the market.  That is exactly what has happened in the UK (and across the world) with illegal narcotics.  The police have been unable to make any significant dent on the drug use in the past 16 years since we have been keeping records and the fact is that this is not surprising.

Drug abuse, like alcohol abuse, is not really a criminal problem.  It is a healthcare one.  The police can arrest somebody for using drugs and lock them up for a night, a week, a month or a year.  But, if they do not address the underlying healthcare problem that is the addiction then the police will be arresting and locking up the addict again very soon.

Don't get confused by offences associated with drink and drug use, such as shoplifting.  Alcoholics commit these offences as much as drug addicts in my experience.  The police are the right people to be dealing with those offences.  But, the question is what should the police do once they have arrested a drug user or alcoholic?  In the UK, there really isn't the resources or the motivation from society as a whole to rehabilitated these people back into normal life.  We prefer to moan about the junkies, the losers, the alky sponging off the state or being criminals.  We scoff at the do-gooders who talk about rehabilitation.  What are we really saying when we talk like that?  We are saying that the addict is unworthy of our attention and that rehabilitation is just a soft option that never works.

In a sense, it is correct to say that rehab never works.  Usually, this is because it is hard to get somebody onto rehab until they have shown a willingness to address their drug use themselves - ironically it's often easier to get a DRR for somebody who says they've stopped using than for somebody who is still using!  This is fine, but after spending a restless night in the cells, clucking, the addict is rarely feeling motivated to do anything let along address their drug problems.  In prison there seems to be little or no help for these people.

I suggest that to resolve the problem two things need to happen.  First, the drug laws need to be overhauled with a view to liberalisation.  This will allow governments to regulate supply and drive criminal gangs from the market.  It will also help to change attitudes among users who frequently see the police as there to arrest them (because they are) and will assist them reintegrating, because at present the drug addicts whole life is basically one long criminal offence. 

Secondly, the government needs to beef up the rehabilitation services available to people both in the community and in prison.  Ironically, I've never known anybody to steal to buy a cigarette yet the NHS spends a fortune getting people to give up.  You can go to your GP and they will refer you to a group who will help you or a myriad of other options.  Go to your GP saying you have a drug problem and you'll be lucky if you see a drugs counsellor before your resolve weakens.

As a nation, we must decide whether we want to continue with this never-ending and seemingly unwinnable war on drugs or whether we want to take positive action to eliminate drug abuse in the future.


  1. Everybody agrees with you, except for the sort of people who read the Daily Mail and go to party conferences. Quite why they should be allowed to hold the rest of the country to ransom is unclear.

  2. It's a noble idea but the reality would be nowhere near as straightforward as you suggest.

    Government regulation of drug supply and a strong rehabilitation system will cost significant sums of money which has to come from somewhere. The public will be unlikely to support increased taxation or public spending cuts to benefit a tiny proportion of the population whom they currently see as criminals, no matter how the 'greater good' angle is sold to them.

    That leaves you with the obvious solution of taxing the now Government controlled drug supply. But as soon as you do that you will inevitably wind up with organised crime groups smuggling drugs in and selling them cheaper - just as we have with tobacco and alcohol - thus defeating part of the object and necessitating continued expenditure on policing the problem.

    1. Ed (not Bystander)22 February 2013 at 16:18

      The money could come from the massive savings on policing and jails. And yes, taxing the substances would be a nice little earner.

    2. Yes, that's what I was going to say.

      We can either choose to continue in this rather fruitless way or we can decide to do something about it. Either way it will cost money, the only difference is whether we are happy with the current situation whereby the expenditure is ongoing and never-ending or whether we would prefer to maintain the same level of expense in the short term but focus it differently with the ultimately aim being to significantly reduce the expense as the problem decreases.

  3. Sorry but there is no war on drugs and never has been. Neither Government nor Police are interested in enforcing the drug laws. If they were serious then targeting the street user is where they should be prioritising and seriously increasing the penalties. Thanks to this we have in effect back door legalisation As long as we perpetuate the myth that drugs addicts have a 'disease' rather than, what is in fact an escape from reality and responsibility, we will continue to absolve addicts from any personal blame for their condition.

    1. I dealt with a man only yesterday who was in the cells for possessing cannabis. Spend a day as duty solicitor in most inner city courts and you'll deal with a lot of very low level drug users.

      Drug addicts don't have a disease but they do have a dependency on the drug. While it is correct to say that it was their choice to start using it is wrong to say that they have a choice to stop. The drugs change the way their brains work by altering the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and the levels at which those neurotransmitters are can effectively do their jobs. The addict thus requires the drug to feel normal - this is the same for any dependency whether it's heroin, crack, alcohol, tobacco or food. The difference is the level of change that the drug has on the brain, which makes somethings much harder to give up than others. Quitting smoking seems to be nothing compared to the effects of clucking as an addict comes off of their gear.

      So, while you can sit back and tell the addict that he is responsible for his current predicament and only he is responsible for getting him out of it, the reality is that this attitude will get us nowhere.

    2. Sorry I don't agree.Drug addicts could stop tomorrow if they wished and have no need for medical intervention. It is time people face up to the truth about drugs and stop believing the hype put out by addicts and those with their own agenda.

    3. Ed (not Bystander)6 March 2013 at 14:09

      Do you smoke, WL?

  4. Whilst it is true illegal imports will be cheaper, this is no different from tobacco or alcohol. The act of supplying such unlicensed drugs would probably be an offence but possession would not be, as is the case at the moment.

    1. Possessing drugs is illegal at the moment. I'm not sure I've understood your point.

    2. It was meant to be in reply to Fitzroy on 22nd if that helps :)

  5. Many people use drugs and live perfectly respectable live, other than the risk of conviction for something which is not affecting other people. I would think that the majority of violent offences are alcohol rather than drug-related. Am I wrong?

    1. I think you are right about most violent offences being linked to alcohol rather than other drugs. Where drugs are involved in violence it tends to be the suppliers committing the violence rather than the user.

      Drugs users seem to be more likely to commit crimes like theft, robbery and burglary.


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