As the perpetual emergence of new psychoactive drugs presents yet another challenge to pursuing the failed “War on Drugs,” prominent groups in the United Kingdom are calling for decriminalization of drug possession and even legal regulation of the market. Among those who have concluded after in-depth study that drug criminalization is counterproductive are the nation’s professional association for doctors and a parliamentary commission on drug use that includes members from all three of the UK’s predominant political parties.
From the All-Party Group on Drug Policy Reform’s report:
Currently we have a drugs control regime underpinned by an irrational drugs classification system, which is ignored by young people; and a banning process which drives the rising tide of new psychoactive substances into this Country. […]
Banning substances within the current system has not, and in our view will not, reduce their use overall. Evidence presented here indicates that, paradoxically, the banning of one drug can make the situation worse by stimulating the production of yet more new, unknown and potentially dangerous substances. […]
Drug policies which criminalise young people generate higher levels of unemployment, homelessness and relationship problems, and cost the taxpayer considerable sums.
The British Medical Association concludes in a report also out this month:
- Criminalisation increases the health risks of illicit drugs by encouraging use in unsafe environments and through dangerous methods of administration. It also deters users from approaching health professionals for treatment.
- A prohibitionist approach creates a lucrative opportunity for criminality and leads to high levels of acquisitive crime among dependent users.
- The stigmatisation of vulnerable populations of drug users also has significant public health implications. […]
- The national budget required for law enforcement, the criminal justice system and dealing with the costs of drug-related crime is several times higher than
the amount spent on drug-related health interventions.
What’s more, top UK police officials testified to the parliamentary commission that the current infrastructure does nothing to reduce use of new psychoactive drugs, and that the government would be better off regulating low-risk psychoactive drugs, as New Zealand has done. “The solution to the particular challenges of legal highs does not lie in adding inexorably to the list of illicit substances,” Chief Constable Tim Hollis said.
The problem of what are known as “legal highs” involves the increasing manufacture of laboratory-produced drugs that mimic the psychoactive effects of popular but banned drugs. Because these new drugs are not immediately codified in the country’s drug ban laws, they are deemed “legal” by users, but that does not stop police from arresting and booking users of the unknown substances before testing the drug. The Parliament commission’s report found that consumers turn to these drugs particularly when they perceive illicit drugs to be laced with more dangerous substances, or of unpredictable strengths. But both their beliefs that these drugs will be safer, and that consuming the drugs is entirely “legal,” lead to perverse results and drive users to ever-more-unpredictable substances.
The phenomenon is the latest development to demonstrate the failure of harsh drug crackdowns to improve public health or safety. In spite of this growing consensus among experts, politicians in the UK – like U.S. politicians – are wary to implement recommended reforms or even undertake a more exhaustive review of current policies, with Prime Minister David Cameron maintaining, “I don’t support decriminalisation,” although he said in 2002 that the drug war “does not work.”
Increasing public support, however, has emboldened some state-level U.S. politicians to lead efforts to legalize and regulate marijuana in Washington and Colorado – a movement motivated by precisely the concerns identified in these two new reports, and intended to test alternative approaches that might actually improve public health and safety, while ending the shameful mass incarceration of U.S. citizens.