On Monday, the government published a policy paper setting out its drug strategy for the next decade. Titled ‘From Harm to Hope’, it claims to offer a light amidst the increasingly dark drug crisis in which the country finds itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth: all this supposedly ‘new’ strategy will do is deepen the escalating epidemic.
The strategy is said to be underpinned by a two-pronged mantra: cut crime, save lives. As ever, the former takes precedence. Donning a police uniform on the Monday night news, Boris Johnson claimed that his government is ‘determined to fight drugs’ which are ‘bad for society’ and ‘bad for opportunity’. Throwing yet more police at the issue—as if that has ever worked—he pledged to ‘be tougher on county lines gangs’ while castigating the ‘300,000 problematic users’ by whom the ‘problem is caused’.
If the rhetoric matching this ‘new’ strategy is starting to sound familiar, that’s because it is. For the past half-century, government after government has told us that drugs fuel crime, that they are the reason for societal ills, and that people who sell them and, indeed, take them, are evil, damaged, or both.
‘From Harm to Hope’ is underpinned by the same logic. Writing in the Daily Mail on the day of its publication, Priti Patel echoed Johnson’s proclamations, noting that ‘drugs are a major driver of crime. Abusers steal to fuel their habit and the substances are a major factor in murder and other violent offences.’
For politicians like Patel and Johnson, who have served only to exacerbate the poor social conditions in which we live, illegal substances are a very convenient scapegoat upon which to pin the consequences of austerity and deeply entrenched inequality. As I have written previously, prohibition has never been about reducing the harm that drugs can pose, but always about stigmatisation, the dampening of cultural fluidity, and the protection of the political status quo.
In the past decade, though, the falsity on which prohibition rests—saving lives—has come to look weaker and weaker. With austerity measures unleashed on treatment services, people who do need help with addiction have had fewer and fewer places to turn. The new strategy does at least accept that this requires reversal. Though buried beneath more alarming headlines planted possibly to distract, the strategy promises £780 million to rebuild local authority substance misuse services after a decade of disinvestment.
This is a credit to the many people who have worked so hard to highlight the devastation that the cuts have caused. But it requires contextualisation, too. Importantly, it is not demonstrative of an acceptance of the reality that drugs will be taken whether sanctioned by the state or not. Instead, it is funding with a view to abstinence.
Abstinence describes the act of total and complete disengagement. Pioneered in the field of drug treatment by Alcoholics Anonymous—yes, alcohol is a drug too—it is underpinned by the idea that substance addiction is a disease that people are born with, neglecting the very many social and environmental factors that underpin and drive substance abuse. It seeks, moreover, to eradicate drugs from society and poses, in turn, very real risks.
The interesting thing about this strategy is that the government clearly accepts that drug use is a health issue. It wouldn’t have diverted so much funding to treatment if it didn’t. But it’s unable to pull itself away from the paradigm to which society has been wedded for so long. With the notable absence of some of the most productive harm-reduction strategies, like drug consumption rooms, which save lives every single day, and the recent announcement of a particularly heinous plan to replace Methadone-based treatment in prisons, it has kept its feet firmly in the camp of denial.
What was needed from this new strategy was a complete and utter paradigm shift; for someone with the power to change things to say loud and clear that prohibition is a myth of massive proportion. Not only that, though—we also need a holistic approach that includes reforms to housing, alongside education, funding for mental health services, and safe and secure employment.
Like everything, drug policy doesn’t exist in isolation. It interacts with a wide variety of socio-political and economic factors as well as malevolent forms of discrimination. Is it a coincidence that opioid abuse has skyrocketed post-2008 alongside growing unemployment, poverty, and the dismantling of welfare measures? Obviously not. As ever, wide societal reform is the true key to change.
That’s not to say there isn’t much to be done now. There is. People like Peter Krykant, who set up the UK’s solo drug consumption room, have shown that there are steps to be taken despite governmental resistance. But it will take more than that: primarily, an effort to address the actual causes of drug-related societal harm.
Instead, what this new strategy offers is a ratcheting-up of Reagan style finger-wagging and fearmongering, a disregard for the racial disproportionality entrenched in drug-related policing practices, and a commitment to ‘secure borders’, punitive sentencing, and the threat of draconian and frankly ridiculous penalties such as passport seizures for ‘life-style users’.
With recent reports that cocaine was found in the Houses of Parliament, I could say that this is reflective of there being one rule for them and another for us. This would be true, of course, but it defeats the point. It isn’t that civil penalties should be evenly applied: they shouldn’t be applied at all. We should be moving away from this obtuse and illogical commitment to criminalisation at all costs, not stripping away the rights of those that use drugs while at the same time perpetuating the Hostile Environment.
It doesn’t help people. It doesn’t keep people safe. It doesn’t deal with drug-related societal harm—much of which is in fact caused by the conditions that prohibition creates. All it does is ruin lives for the sake of cheap political tokenism and compound the poverty that drove many into the illegal drug trade in the first place.
Faced with a growing drug crisis to which more and more people are losing lives and livelihoods, we have a choice: legalise, regulate, and shift wholeheartedly towards a health-orientated approach, or allow this maelstrom of harm to proliferate. As the rest of the world appears to be tending, albeit slowly, towards the former, this government has chosen the latter.
More funding, yes—but with a ‘drug-free society’ still firmly on the agenda, it is ultimately a continuation of Reagan’s racially-charged crusade that began half a century ago. As ever, it is the most marginalised and vulnerable communities that will suffer.