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The War On Drugs Has Failed, A New Mindset Is In Order

The War On Drugs Has Failed, A New Mindset Is In Order

Last week I was aimlessly scrolling through twitter when I saw a BBC news article pop up from a few days prior. The article is headlined ‘Boris Johnson to consider calls to legalise magic mushroom drug psilocybin’ and claims that the government is set to ‘examine the latest advice on the legalisation of psilocybin (the compound that gets you high)’ as a result of Tory MP Crispin Blunt’s appeal to the potential mental health benefits for people suffering with ‘conditions such as depression, trauma and addiction’. If psilocybin was legalised for medical use, it would find itself in the same category of medical cannabis, which was legalised in 2018. However, this does not tell the whole story of UK drug policy, which is largely non-preventative and primarily consists of criminalising users in a recreational and medical capacity.

The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act placed all drugs on a scale of A to C, with class A containing drugs harmful to the individual and the community such as heroin and cocaine, class B containing less harmful drugs such as cannabis and ketamine and Class C containing ‘least harmful’ drugs such as Valium and Xanax. The classes determine the punishment for dealing and possession, ranging from 7 years for possession of a class A drug to 2 years for possession of a class C drug. However, these classes are largely out of touch with the reality of drugs' harm on the individual and the community. A class B drug such as cannabis is widely consumed by Brits, in 2019/2020 it was estimated that 29.6% of people between ages 16-59 in England and Wales had used cannabis at least once in their life. Moreover, the harm of the individual of cannabis use is largely non-existent, with zero deaths as a result of overuse of cannabis ever being recorded. Lastly cannabis is far less likely to induce anti-social behaviour than alcohol, a substance widely consumed legally and is not even regulated under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, but rather the far tamer Medicines Act of 1968.

The end result of this ill-enforced prohibition is that 13% of all non-violent offenders in prison are serving on drug charges of possession or dealing, of which a disproportionate number are of ethnic minority background. This is largely an intended effect of the war on drugs, as opposed to a side effect. Considering the UK was largely pressured by its allies to adopt drug prohibition it is important to assess the motivations for drug prohibition in the UK’s chief ally, the country which started the war on drugs, the United States of America. Former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon John Ehrlichman summed up the motivations for the war on drugs perfectly in a quote to journalist Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine. Ehrlichman explained that the Nixon administration ‘knew [it] couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities’, effectively outlining how drug policy was used as a weapon against leftist political movements and black people. It is therefore clear that this racially motivated crusade must end.

What are other countries doing differently that Britain can take inspiration from? Ironically a lot of progress on drug policy making has occurred on the state level in the United States, with 18 states and DC having legalised recreational cannabis, and Oregon via a 2020 referendum legalising psilocybin mushrooms provided they are grown and administered in licensed environments and used only for ‘personal development'. This, to me, sounds like a thumbs up to recreational tripping. The impact of such a radical policy change is yet to be fully understood because of the recency of the changes in the law. However, we can assess the impact of legalised cannabis for recreational use, which is currently a class B drug in the UK. According to a report published by the Cato Institute, an American Libertarian thinktank, in February 2021, the evidence suggests that ending cannabis prohibition ‘reduces crime, raises tax revenue, lowers criminal justice expenditures, improves public health, increases traffic safety, and stimulates the economy’. 

For further examination of how decriminalisation of more harmful drugs would impact individual users' health and society in general we can look to Portugal, the only country in the world to decriminalise possession and consumption of all drugs. Portugal was in the 1980s at the forefront of the HIV pandemic, spurred by rampant heroin use, with 1 in 10 Portuguese people slipping into heroin use. In reaction to this in 2001 the government took said radical action. The impact was astounding, with HIV cases plummeting from ‘an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015’ and drug-related deaths and rates of drug use falling consistently below the EU average. This is largely the product of the government opening clean needle clinics for heroin users, and users themselves feeling more able to seek help without the fear of imprisonment. Moreover, by removing the stigma around drug use, the appeal of abusing substances has naturally faded for a lot of young people.

While it is true that decriminalisation and legalisation can lead to reduction in the consumption of harmful drugs it is equally important to remember that some illegal substances, such as MDMA, LSD and Psilocybin Mushrooms, which are all class A substances, can and are being used for medical treatment of people suffering from PTSD and/or depression, suggesting that decriminalising drugs will not only reduce use of net harmful substances but also enable people to use previously highly illegal substances to rebuild their mental health. The UK abstains from increasingly liberal drug policy at its own detriment, or more truthfully, its own people’s detriment.

So, is any change on the way? Well, as I said, the government is considering legalising Psilocybin Mushrooms and Sadiq Khan made a point of promising to decriminalise recreational marijuana use in London (despite the fact that he has no power over drug policy). However, with Priti Patel as Home Secretary and the Labour leadership dismissing drug liberalisation in the hopes of appealing to ‘Red Wall’ socially conservative former labour voters, it does not look like change is around the corner, regardless of the result of the next General Election. Nevertheless, the public position is fairly clear, with 59% of Brits in favour of legalising recreational use of cannabis with just 31% against and ‘60% who think that criminalisation has ‘been futile’, which implies that if Labour were to make the argument they could even gain a voter or two? But since when did Keir Starmer care about winning elections…

Samir Sehgal

1 Nov 2021