November 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Drugs policy: not as easy as ABC. A new report on UK drug policy is refreshingly different ...


In October 2012, the UK Drugs Policy Commission published a report, six years in the making, into the country’s current approach to illegal drugs. It highlights a growing desire in society to move towards a more evidence-based approach to policy-making. Entitled ‘A fresh approach to drugs’, it proposes making possession a civil rather than a criminal offence, and suggests focusing remedial efforts on harm reduction so that users can be supported to adopt more responsible behaviours instead of being criminalised and stigmatised.

The report is highly critical of the antiquated, and largely arbitrary, ‘ABC’ system of drug classification drawn up in 1971. Under this system, 42,000 people were sentenced to drug offences in 2011, with a further 160,000 issued warnings for cannabis possession. Given the body of evidence in the literature on the relative impacts of drugs, it seems somewhat ill-conceived that magic mushrooms, the least harmful of drugs to user and society, are categorised with heroin and crack, two powerfully addictive substances. It seems that the only similarity in the damage caused by taking mushrooms and crack is the prison sentence that can be brought against the user, and the criminal record that will follow them for years to come.

One of the key successes of the report is that it recognises the prevalence of drug use (36.4% of people in England and Wales take illegal drugs) and the potential impact of criminal records on so large a group. It also discusses the need for policy makers to accept that not all the effects of drugs are negative; frequently young adults will use drugs and simply grow out of it. In this respect the report echoes one of Bill Hicks’ famous rants where he says “I have taken drugs before and […] I had a real good time. Sorry. Didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t rob anybody”. Refreshing, too, is the report’s discussion on why there is a difference in our minds between ‘drugs’ and state-sanctioned drugs like alcohol and nicotine; in terms of harm there is no clear-cut distinction.

Response to the report has been, regrettably, predictable. Although many media outlets communicated the findings, they could not resist pulling out eye-catching quotes, ironically underlining the issues of an alarmist media which the report itself warns against. The Independent, Daily Telegraph and Huffington Post all opted for headlines picking up on the report comparing drug use with junk food or gambling – sadly reminiscent of the horse-riding comment that led to the vilification and mockery of Professor David Nutt in the press.

Outside the media, responses have been mixed. The Green Party, which campaigns for the decriminalisation of small drugs offences, welcomed the findings, with MP Caroline Lucas calling for “policy based on evidence about what reduces harms, rather than one driven by moral judgements”. This is a common theme in current drugs policy; the assumed moral values of society are imposed via criminal sanctions on users. Interesting questions are raised when we consider that a third of us are taking illegal drugs; so where has this assumed morality come from and is using drugs inherently wrong?

The answer will depend on your frame of reference – many religions, for example, prohibit the use of alcohol. What if my religion allows or encourages the use of psychoactive substances, or what if I have no religion at all? Should beliefs like these be given influence over policy in a modern, secular society?

There seems to be an underlying theme here. Should the use of drugs be a personal choice or should the government have control over what you do? The latter is a troubling idea for people from all over the political spectrum. This is further complicated by the fact many of the ‘wrongs’ of taking drugs – such as exploitation during production and the crimes committed to feed addictions – are caused or exacerbated by the fact that drugs are illegal in the first place.

Intelligent debate on drugs policy has been extremely difficult, as politicians are loath to appear soft on crime and many media sources see decriminalisation as indicative of declining moral values. A key recommendation is to remove the political and criminal angle from drugs policy and instead make it a health and civil issue – take responsibility away from the Home Office and give it instead to the health service. Let an independent body set statutory policy. If these measures were taken, evidence-based policies could be pursued without any political party being involved, hopefully allowing some progress.

The Home Office, in response to the suggestion that responsibility for such policy-making be taken from them, has claimed “our ambitious approach to tackling drugs is the right one”. Therein lies the problem. Having just read an 89-page report stressing the lack of long-term thinking, research and evidence-based policy, it is mildly amusing to hear the Home Office declare business as usual. Throughout the report the exasperated tone of the authors is evident. Frequently they offer examples of successful policies of harm-reduction and decriminalisation that have worked in Portugal, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, yet there is an air of fatalism from knowing their ideas are likely to be ignored. Perhaps if enough people take notice, we might start to see fewer policies based on some idea of a national morality and instead move towards a scientifically based framework which might actually, well, work.

Is the UK ready for these types of strategies? Colorado and Washington have just voted to legalise cannabis use, adding to the growing number of countries and states moving away from a criminally enforced abstinence approach to one based on harm reduction. This report points to a new way: what if we accepted that some people are going to take drugs no matter what we do? Why not just make sure they don’t injure themselves or their futures while they’re doing it? Now that would be a fresh approach.