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High Time for the Left to Debate Drugs Policy

On this day in 1971, Britain adopted the Misuse of Drugs Act. Almost 50 years later, it's time to look beyond prohibition – but the solution won't be found in a for-profit recreational drugs industry.

On this day in 1971, The Misuse of Drugs Act was given royal assent. Implementing the UK’s international obligations derived from the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the act created a legislative framework for the regulation of “dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs.”

In the near fifty years since its legal birth, the act has upheld prohibition and the draconian policies – those that discriminate on the basis of race, but also class – that accompany it. It has created a system of two halves, in which the members of the ruling class can dabble in drug use and uphold positions of power, while members of lower classes are subject to punishment with long-term, life-altering impacts. 

Staying true to its political inspiration – the racist-by-design American War on Drugs – British prohibition reserves special castigation for black and ethnicity minority communities. In 2016 black people were stopped and searched for drugs at almost nine times the rate of whites. In 2017, they were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 times the rate of their white counterparts, and prosecuted for drug offences eight times over. I could go on. Each statistic an example of the racism embedded in our imperialist drug policy. And, it is worth mentioning that those of Asian heritage are targeted disproportionately too, though not to the same extent.

Despite the efforts of consecutive governments – both Conservative and Labour – to make drug use illicit and morally repugnant, prohibition has failed spectacularly: drugs are an illegal yet acknowledged commodity. According to data compiled by the home office, 9.4% of adults aged 16 to 59 admitted to taking a drug at some point in 2018/19. The figure was higher for 16 to 24 year olds: 20.3% admitting to have indulged in the politically manufactured sin. 

Even as we contend with coronavirus, the wildly unsuccessful drug war remains an issue that swallows police time and the tax payers money. In the first month of lockdown, the use of stop and search rose concurrent with the increase in police power. In London, for example, there were 30, 608 incidents of stop and search in April – 70% under the aegis of drugs – compared to 23, 787 in March. Not coincidentally this rise was coupled with an increase racial disparity. The number of stops per 100,000 people increased from 7.2 to 9.3 for black people. It was only 2.3 per 100,000 for white people.

It is easy to dwell on the failures of the past fifty years, and those of the previous weeks, but an end to prohibition, for cannabis at least, is on the horizon. Though objectively positive, the promise of reform brings with it the danger of a new avenue for exploitation and exclusion. There is no single model of legalisation. And merely legalising cannabis will not remedy the disparities and difficulties created prohibition and its enforcement. In the areas of North America that have seen a relaxation of the drug war – Canada, Washington and California to name a few – it is, as Dr Kojo Koram, the editor of The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line told me, predominantly large corporations that have reaped the rewards. Primarily those in the business of pharmaceuticals and tobacco, but also oil and mining. 

In our conversation, Dr Koram spoke of the operational parallels between drug trade and the companies currently cashing in on the creation of cannabis as a legal commodity.

“The idea of free floating capital, of hyper competition, of a work force that is highly expendable. They are really elements we have seen in the drug trade as it has emerged.” 

“That’s what makes it so easy for these large companies to start looking at legal cannabis and moving into that field. They have operated on the same model for a long time. They have the organisation, they have the capital investment. They are able to get a market advantage.”

With the economic illogicality of our current cannabis laws now plainly apparent, the penny has dropped for british free-marketeers and many have begun to mobilise in favour of legalisation. This includes those close to Johnson, such a Zac Goldsmith and think tanks of a neoliberal persuasion, such as Thatcher’s darling: the Institute of Economic Affairs. And the motive, as you may imagine, is not to right the wrongs created by the drug war.

Given the dominance of this section of the political spectrum in the debate at present, the left – should it fail to engage – could wake to find the UK at the mercy of a profit driven cannabis market. Legal consumption for the masses, but profit and control for the corporate upper classes. 

In the past, the Labour Party has taken a less than progressive approach to drug policy; tabling The Misuse of Drugs act in 1970 and describing addiction as a ‘major source of crime’ in 2015, it has often succumbed to the pressure to appear ‘tough on crime’. Even under Corbyn, drug policy barely got a mention until 2019 and in 2020, when the policies of the left were the territory of the leadership election, the best cannabis reform got was a maybe. 

But the fact is this: a drug free world isn’t possible. With legalisation a practical inevitability, the left must argue for the kind of legal market that will benefit the majority. For Dr Koram, this begins with helping those harmed by prohibition: those that are “over policed and over imprisoned”. It means commuting convictions for those currently in prison for drug offences and supporting those still suffering as a result. It means education and the creation of “pathways to help those currently residing in the illegal economy to enter into the legal climate”. 

There is also the matter of taxation. The driver for reform should not be solely economic, as it is in libertarian circles, but redistributive wealth models are imperative if legalisation is to be widely beneficial. Dr Koram was clear: “the profits of legalisation must be driven back into the communities that have suffered most significantly as a result of the drug war”.  

This includes communities further afield. The demand for cannabis – and ‘harder drugs’ – in the West is a source of devastation in the Global South. Contrary to the implication of terms such as ‘woke coke’, ethically sourced drugs are an illusion and the drug war has created working conditions that are nothing short of deadly, leaving communities displaced and divided. But the creation of legal cannabis market could – according to Dr Koram – represent a turning point:

“There is a real opportunity with the potential creation of a global legalised cannabis market. One that isn’t as extractive or exploitative as a lot of the other legal commodity markets from the Global South to the Global North. I think that if it is done correctively, it could even start to change the models that we have for trade in other markets.” 

In the context of the current political situation, with the libertarian right at the helm, this is difficult to imagine – less a possible reality, more a utopian fantasy. But there are glimmers of hope. In his report for Commonwealth, Dr Koram points to attempts to explore cooperative models in Massachusetts and equity programmes in Oakland. 

The prospect of reform thus brings with it dangers, but also new possibilities. With the war on cannabis as good as dead, the battle to shape the market in favour of the few will take its place. The left must push against this, for there is, as Dr Koram said, a “real opportunity” for something much better.