Heads, not hearts, must guide UK drug policy. We must decriminalise now.

by Callum Anderson

The decision by the Uruguayan government to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana – becoming the first country in the world to do so – has been widely reported in the media. With this in mind, how governments all over the world tackle drug use and drug addiction has been thrust back into the spotlight. Indeed, it is one of the most emotive and polarising issues in politics.

Many experts, including the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy have concluded that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ cannot be won. Indeed, I believe that the time has come for drug policy to be led by our policy makers’ heads, and not their hearts. Drug use and drug addiction must primarily be treated as a public health (and an economic) issue, not a criminal one.

It is an indisputable fact that drugs affect all of us, whether directly or indirectly. There are many of us, who have witnessed the stranglehold that drugs can have on an individual. It is, of course, a somewhat more painful experience if that individual is a relative, a friend or a partner. The seemingly unstoppable unravelling of ones life. The growing disconnection between the addiction and what really matters – family, work and friendship – is truly agonising.

In addition, there are indirect costs. Research by the Home Office has found that the economic and social costs of drug use are estimated to be around £15.4 billion a year in England and Wales alone, with drug related crime constituting 90 per cent. These facts are reflected in the Ministry of Justice’s figures, which show that the custody rate for drug offences have risen from 16.9 per cent in 1993, to 17.3 per cent in 2011, with the average custodial sentence rising from 28.3 months to 31.3 months in the same period. This has resulted in 14 per cent of prisoners being incarcerated due to drugs.

I do not deny that the case for decriminalisation is a tough sell to the British public: recent polling suggests the majority of people support the current law, which criminalises the sale, possession and use of drugs.

What then, does this all entail?

Well, let’s take a look at Portugal.

In 2001, the Portuguese (centre-left) government took the step of decriminalising the possession and use of drugs including cocaine and heroin. Instead of seeking to diminish use by punishing users, the new measures considered drugs illegal, but no longer treated drug consumption as a criminal offence. In addition, Portugal’s drugs reforms included a wide range of measures such as prevention and social education to discourage the use of drugs, as well as providing treatment for drug dependent people and assisting their reintegration into society.

So, what happened to drug usage rates in Portugal?

Research conducted by the Cato Institute has shown that, although prevalence rates for the 15-24 age group increased very slightly, the rates for the 15-19 age group (critical because this is the time when most people begin to experiment with drugs) actually declined in absolute terms in the six years following decriminalisation. Indeed, while drug prevalence rates, between 1999 and 2005, rose for the 16–18 age group, the use of heroin, the substance that Portuguese drug officials believed was the most socially destructive, decreased from 2.5 to 1.8 percent.

Furthermore, the number of those in treatment for their addiction problems has risen by about a third from 23,500 in 1998 to 35,000 today – helped by a substantial increase in available beds, facilities and medical support – with many going on to methadone replacement programmes. The consequence is that perhaps as much as £334m has been taken out of the illegal drugs market in Portugal.

What’s more, to illustrate the stark differences between the UK and Portugal, let’s compare drug usage rates. The results are staggering. Whilst Portugal, in the period 2001-2005, had one of the lowest lifetime prevalence rate for cannabis (the most used drug in the EU) for the 15-64 age group, the UK recorded usage rates that were 2.5 times that of Portugal. Wait, it gets worse. While Portugal had cocaine usage rates of just 0.9 per cent (again, for the 15-64 age group), the UK recorded usage rates of 6.1 per cent – in other words, a usage rate seven times that of Portugal.

The Open Society has also further illustrated the positive consequence of drug liberalisation. It found that the percentage of drug users in Portugal (mostly heroin users) infected with HIV fell: whereas they constituted 52 per cent of newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 2000, this number had fallen dramatically to 20 per cent in 2008.

So, evidence from Portugal has clearly shown that by decriminalising drug use and possession, authorities are in a better position to tackle the public health element of drug addiction.

But that’s not all.

Research by the Institute for Social & Economic Research found that there was no causal link between cannabis use and violent crime. This would suggest that instead of running after drug users, the police would be freed up to concentrate their efforts on combating organised crime and drug dealing.

The move to decriminalise drugs would not be an easy one. It will take political will (not to mention courage) of the highest order. It is obvious that politicians of any party would find it difficult to explain this to the electorate, many of whom will be aware and/or have experienced the effects of drug addiction and abuse on their communities. However, on this issue, our heads must rule our hearts. The bottom line is that the ‘war on drugs’ has not been won, and is unlikely to ever be won.

A progressive UK Government should seek to take the criminal aspect out of drug use. This would allow it to direct its time and resources to not only rehabilitating drug addicts, and helping them to rebuild their lives through skills programmes, enabling them to be productive citizens, but also to provide funding for schools and youth centres, so that they can educate our young people about the consequences of drug use and addiction.

Although this would only be a start, it would at least begin to effectively tackle drug use and addiction in Britain.

Callum Anderson is a recent Economics and German graduate from the University of Birmingham

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12 Responses to “Heads, not hearts, must guide UK drug policy. We must decriminalise now.”

  1. John reid says:

    This makes sense but decriminiling, doesn’t stop people using legal drugs, alcoholic, who down bottles of spirits, so it by quantity, because they can despite knowing the trouble,

  2. Ex Labour says:

    The war on drugs has never really been fought – so how is it not winnable ? Governments of all colours have made half hearted attempts to deal with it. Until we as a nation change our attitude and stop treating drug addicts as “victims”, when nobody forces them to inject or snort and commit crime in order to do it, and really get tough with the drug smugglers and cartels in terms of the “war” then nothing will change.

    Perhaps instead of looking to Portugal, maybe we should look to Asia and the stance they take ? If you are really in a war then fight it like a war. Unfortunately UK governments and political parties dont have the courage to do so.

  3. Renie Anjeh says:

    I wouldn’t stay clear off legalisation but there does need to be reform of drugs policy. There needs to be Royal Commission and cannabis should be downgraded to a class C drug. Even Jacqui Smith admitted that the decision to upgrade it was a big mistake. Drug consumption rooms should be piloted across the country so that addicts could have a safe place to take their drugs. That would lower crime but also ensure that addiction is treated as a medical issue.

  4. bob says:

    Execution for class A and B dealers would be better, where’s my rope?

  5. Callum Anderson says:

    Hi everyone, thanks for actually reading this, and even leaving comments! I’ll address some of the above.


    Hahaha 🙂


    As I’m sure you know, it was President Nixon who coined the term ‘war on drugs’. I think when people refer to the ‘war’, we’re talking about very strict and draconian laws against those against possessing and consuming drugs, all over the world. And why do I say it’s something we cannot win? For the reasons I stated in the article: in the first instance, we’re spending billions of pounds a year trying to crack down on drug users and addicts.

    I would also keenly contest the notion that we, in Britain, give drug addicts an easy ride: the scope/effectiveness of our rehabilitation programmes (not to mention our drug education programmes are distressingly low.

    As far as looking to Asia (as opposed to Portugal), let’s have a quick look at Thailand. Human Rights Watch & the Harm Reduction Journal data suggests that up to 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, and that as a consequence of their draconian drugs policy (and we are all familiar with what that entails), this keeps drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment. This obviously has knock-on effects for the rest of the population (unprotected sex, pregnancies etc).

    There is also, clearly, a human rights element to: it seems very odd to me to have killed 2800 people because of drugs, as the Thai Government has done over the last ten years. Just this would suggest to me, that there must be a better way to tackle drug abuse, addiction, possession and use. I have also struggled to source data that suggests that Thailand (or indeed any other Asian country) has a lower prevalence rate for drugs as a direct consequence of a hardline policy.

    Of course, there will not be an insignificant number of people, who would (understandably) argue your point of view. However, I take the position I do, not because I instinctively believe in one’s right to take drugs (although is it much different to alcohol or even cigarettes), but because evidence suggests that it is more effective than the current path we have taken for the last 40 years.

    But I would be keen to see you right an article for Labour Uncut detailing the evidence that hardline drugs policy works (I can think of know countries that have been successful in bringing down consumption/addiction, as well as crime and health indicators, through forceful means).


    You do make some good points, as far as giving drug addicts a space for them to consume their drugs (so long as they seek treatment at the same time). Also, for example, needle exchange programmes for heroin users have proved to be a significant reason for bringing down consumption (as well as lowering HIV rates, as mentioned in the article).

    You also make a good wider point with crime and drug use/addiction, and something that I didn’t get to include in the article. There is a logical argument that says that if you decriminalise drugs, and allow safe spaces for people to obtain/purchase their substance, then crime would come down because they are no longer in the hands of drug dealers, many of whom use people’s addictions as a way to control them. Indeed, there is less motivation for individuals to burgle people’s homes, mug people on the street, to get the money to pay for their habit, because they know they can get their hit (for want of a better word).

    However, whether a Royal Commission would be an appropriate means to move this forward is debatable (we already have the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs), but what I would say, is that an issue as contentious as drugs, must be argued through data and evidence, and not on the basis of ‘evil drug addicts are lazy so-and-sos: let’s punish them’.

  6. uglyfatbloke says:

    Then problem lies with political fear of the Daily Mail, but why should that bother our side? Mail readers are going to vote Tory anyway. If Cameron were really as smart as he thinks he is he would tackle this issue head-on and leave Ed to argue about why that was wrong which would put him in a very difficult position. Cameron would lose a few votes, however the voters he lost would not tun out for labour or the glib-dumbs, but he would be encouraging at least 2.5 million voters – many of whom don’t vote at all because the parties currently have nothing to offer them – to vote tory ‘just this once’, not to mention those (and their relatives) who have medical requirements for MS/ME/insomnia/pain control/appetite issues after chemotherapy/migraine/glaucoma and god knows what all else.
    Also, is there not a civil liberties question? When did our house stop being our castle?

  7. swatantra says:


  8. Callum Anderson says:


    There is little to disagree with there. This issue will definitely need a lot of courage by our political leaders, but I do agree: the sirens of both the Mail and the Sun probably scares them (the politicians) because it would probably risk in getting in the way of their other target issues (i.e. the economy).

    Also, I would recommend giving this a watch: really highlights the different stances of the debate – won’t take a genius to work out who I agree with: http://www.newstatesman.com/media-mole/2013/12/watch-matthew-perry-vs-peter-hitchens-aka-could-i-be-any-more-favour-drug-courts

  9. bob says:

    Callum, at least you made a comment in reply, I go for the idea that the class A and B dealers are executed. Anybody arrested in possession of Class A in particular could be allowed a treatment and prison sentence of ten years for verifiable information on the next like in the chain otherwise a short morning walk. By working backwards you can slowly stop the trade but you have to have draconian penalties.

    Treat current heroin users by using medical grade heroin in a controlled system by slowly reducing the amount given each day. Use a biomarker in the heroin so that bloods can be taken from the addict to ensure that only prescribed heroin is used. Try the Israeli method of sedation for withdrawal.

    Stop the methadone programme as we are only maintaining not treating the problem.

    Today in Liverpool, Matrix lifted 4 million pounds worth of uncut heroin, the dealers should be prosecuted and executed if found guilty. If they say we are just looking after it, go back to my first idea, turn in the who you got it from or the early morning short work is next.

  10. steve says:

    Unprincipled opportunism is always the best policy – just see which way the wind of public opinion is blowing on this matter and then, rather than providing leadership, offer support.

    I was always impressed with Will Straw’s approach: he previously supported legalisation* but when he wanted to become a PPC he shifted opinion and opposed legalisation**.

    Splendid example of political acumen!

    * http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1244481/Jack-Straws-son-demands-apologies-Blair-Iraq-War-shoddy-way-betrayed-father.html

    ** http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/9940398.print/

  11. Ex Labour says:

    @ Callum Anderson

    Callum, firstly its not for me to write any article with an opposing view. You chose to put your view on here for others to see and there will be those who disagree and say so. Its all part of blogging.

    I’m probably a lot older than you (based on your short bio at the end of your blog) so over the years I’ve seen numerous reports in the news where some are pro-legaisation and others not – particularly with reference to marijuana. The argument has been fought for years.

    Your view clearly is that legaisation is the way to go and you of course point to research that supports that view. However, when I was at Uni many moons ago I studied Research Philosophy and one of the dangers in research is one of confirmation bias i.e. you let your own view colour your research. It also taught me that research from one area can not be extrapolated on to another. Portugal and the UK are culturally different and may have different social values and norms of behaviour. It far too simplistic to assume correlation.

    You say nothing of the medical issues either – not a word. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists the latest mediacal research says there are potential long term side effects including a range of psychotic illnesses. So if we legalised what effect would this have on the NHS ? How many more billions would we have to pour in to treat or contain these people ?

    There are also other factors i.e. safety. In New Zealand they found that marijuana users were more likely to be involved in road accidents. France also conducted a survey of 10,000 fatal accidents and found that marijuana users were twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident. Again what cost to the government, public and families for this ? Or do you believe it wont happen as users will be responsible ?

    What is also paradoxical about your response is that you initially talk about the issues to individuals and families when there is an addict within and I’ve seen first hand the destruction these peolple do to themselves and those around them. However when I mention the approach of other countries you immediately go into ‘ human rights mode’. This of course makes my point in my original comment – the western governments including the UK have not and will not fight a true war on drugs.

    Is the death penaly a deterant ? Again some research says yes, some no, but taking a country like Singapore, their drugs problem in society is miniscule compared to ours. So you make your own mind up from this.

    I do agree that there should be better treatment for those who truly want to be clean but I’m not really a fan of all this political correctness about giving users “space” to take their drugs etc. FFS what that all about !!

  12. swatantra says:

    No, No, No.

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