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It’s Time to End the War on Drugs

Today marks 39 years since Ronald Reagan ramped up America's War on Drugs. British politicians still seem to be following his lead – despite the fact that cannabis is now legal in 18 US states.

Credit: Victoria Bee Photography / Getty Images

In June, officials in the state of Washington decided to offer a free marijuana joint to any adult aged 21 or older receiving their first or second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The scheme, aptly named ‘joints for jabs’, was a tacit recognition of two beliefs: first, that smoking marijuana is sufficiently popular an activity that it was considered worthy of co-opting as an incentive; second, that authorities deemed the potential harms of marijuana to be sufficiently low to feature the substance in its most important public health strategy in decades. Indeed, Washington is one of the 18 US states in which the non-medical use of cannabis is legalised (it is decriminalised in a separate 13 states).

The United States’ recent drug awakening is now gaining significant traction in national political circles too. In July, Senate Majority Leader and democrat Chuck Schumer sponsored a bill calling for the federal decriminalisation of marijuana. Of note, the bill also includes proposals that would help undo damage done to deprived and ethnic minority groups by ‘the failed federal prohibition of cannabis’, funding for which could be generated through taxation of a legalised cannabis market. Co-sponsor of the bill Senator Cory Booker encapsulated the hypocrisy of the country’s current approach: ‘We have children in this country, people all over this country—our veterans, Black and brown people, low-income people—now bearing the stain of having a criminal conviction for doing things that half of the last four presidents admit to doing.’

The fact that the most senior politician in the United States Senate is an active supporter of marijuana decriminalisation illustrates a truth that should be universally acknowledged: the war on drugs has been a complete and utter failure, and a prohibitively expensive one at that. In 1971 President Nixon declared drug abuse ‘public enemy number one’, and so followed half a century of a global crackdown that has precipitated untold human misery and suffering. And to what end? Illicit drug use remains commonplace in almost every country in the world. Why? Because humans are hardwired to seek out desirable psychological experiences. Some drugs that can elicit these experiences are legal (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine); some aren’t. There is far more that unites these substances than divides them.

Of course, drugs can be harmful. Alcohol is a particularly good example of this – it is responsible for thousands of deaths each year in the UK alone. But the key principle underpinning the decriminalisation and legalisation of illicit drugs is the preference for a harm reduction rather than abstinence approach. The predictable failure of the Prohibition movement in the US should have served as a warning, but instead it fell on deaf ears in the Nixon administration. I am in no doubt that one day we will look back on the war on drugs in the same way we do now for Prohibition and think, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’

A lesser known fact: in 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. They have since seen a reduction in drug-related harm. The practicalities of legalisation are outside the scope of this article (not because I’m being lazy, but because there’s plenty out there already), but a key principle should be regulation titrated to the harm potential of each drug. While it would be irresponsible not to highlight the significant dangers that drugs can pose, it would also be remiss of me to ignore the possible medical applications of currently illicit drugs. The purported benefits of so-called medicinal cannabis have been well-documented, but in the last few years there has been an explosion of research into the potential medical (in particular, psychiatric) uses of drugs previously restricted to the recreational realm, whether it’s MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or psilocybin (the psychoactive component of ‘magic mushrooms’) to treat depression and addiction.

The war on drugs has led to a scenario in which millions are incarcerated for minor drugs ‘offences’, while the real criminals are the profiteering ‘drug lords’ on whose watch human slavery, murder, and rape are rife. The staggering human cost of this law enforcement is not felt equally across all groups in society, either. Data from 2018 showed that individuals from ethnic minority groups in London were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite using it at similar rates. This is just one example of the fact that not only is drug policy often regressive, but it serves to entrench existing inequalities present in society. Vast amounts of police time and money in this country is spent enforcing dubious laws that discriminate against marginalised and vulnerable groups.

Keeping drugs illegal is what’s putting people in harm’s way. In 2020, drug deaths in Scotland increased for the seventh year in a row, reaching a tragic record of 1,339. So many of these deaths could have been prevented, primarily by improving the social determinants of health that lead individuals into dangerous drug-seeking behaviour (people in the most deprived areas of Scotland were 18 times more likely to die than those in the wealthiest areas), but also by dealing with these behaviours when they arise in a way that puts a person’s health before a counterproductive law.

Set aside some time to watch this video of Peter Krykant, who’s made it his mission to ensure that those who inject illicit drugs in Glasgow have a clean and supervised environment in which to do it: the ‘Glasgow overdose prevention service’. His roaming injection van provides a supply of clean needles and is stocked with emergency overdose kits. He could be arrested, but the police seem to be turning a blind eye, presumably because there’s an unwritten acknowledgement his intervention is likely to be saving lives. Decriminalisation and legalisation policies would remove the barriers to those suffering with drug dependence to seek support without fear of reprisal, making way for a public health approach to drug misuse that puts a person’s wellbeing and recovery at its centre.

If the moral and public health motivations for drug reform aren’t cutting through with politicians, it’s worth highlighting the electoral motivations, particularly as UK parties begin ramping up for manifesto preparation. Chuck Schumer has been open with his political calculation that the democratic party’s support for cannabis legalisation could pay dividends at the ballot box. This is unsurprising given that nearly 70 percent of Americans are in favour of such a policy.

For those UK politicians at the back, here’s some food for thought. In a 2019 survey of UK adults’ attitudes towards drugs: 76 percent thought ‘the threat of criminal punishments are not effective at deterring individuals who unlawfully use drugs’; 48 percent support government legalisation of cannabis (24 percent oppose); and 50 percent thought legal regulation would offer more protection to the young and vulnerable (23 percent thought it would offer less protection). My favourite statistic was that only 16 percent of respondents said they thought it was ‘morally wrong’ to use drugs.

Times have changed. Times are continuing to change. I would urge politicians not to be on the back foot of the inevitable.