Hard drugs on dark table. Drug syringe and cooked heroin

50 years in, the war on drugs is an unmitigated disaster

There’s arguably no piece of legislation in the modern era which has been more ineffective, needlessly cruel or morally insane than the Misuse of Drugs Act. Last week saw its 50th anniversary. And over the course of that half century it has maimed and mutilated countless lives, thrown hundreds of thousands of people pointlessly in prison, and accomplished the square root of absolutely nothing at all.

The facts speak for themselves. Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs for the Home Office last year found that 3 million people took drugs in England and Wales in 2019. Drug use has shot up since 1971, when the Act was passed. Less than 10,000 people took heroin back then, whereas over 250,000 do now. Cannabis use has gone from under half a million to over 2.5 million today. Around one per cent of adults had tried drugs in the 60s, compared to around a third now. It’s fair to say that the legislation has not worked for that which it was intended to achieve.

The illicit drugs market is worth an estimated £9.4 billion a year, most of which is directed towards sustaining criminal gangs. In recent years, the ‘county lines’ system has begun to supply drugs from an urban hub towards rural or coastal towns, displacing local dealers. One of its marked features is the exploitation of children, typically aged around 15-17, who are deployed as ‘runners’ transporting drugs and money.

On any given day, a third of the prison population is there for drug related crime – around 40% for convictions on the basis of specific drug offences and 60% for crimes related to drug addiction, like theft. In prison, they continue to use drugs. Random drug test data suggests 12,500 inmates – about 15% of the total population – are using drugs on any given day. Most users entered prison with a drug problem, but eight per cent of female inmates and 13% of males developed their problem with drugs while they were incarcerated.

These figures do not include the people who are given a caution for drug possession, many of them teenagers. We rarely talk about this, because it doesn’t involve a prison sentence, and therefore seems fairly small-fry. But cautions involve an admission of guilt and therefore constitute a criminal record. They freeze countless thousands of young people out of many of the professions and kneecap their career before it has even begun.

Under any possible analysis, the war on drugs has been an unmitigated failure. More people take drugs, more people die of them, more people end up in prison, and more money is funnelled into criminal gangs. For half a century we have tried to accomplish something which cannot be done. We have legislated for what is inconceivable. And, in reality, we have fuelled the worst possible side-effects of drug use: broken lives, dead bodies and rich criminals.

If the world made any sense, the political class would accept that the legislation has failed. It would acknowledge that people are clearly going to take drugs regardless of whether they are banned or not. It would prioritise their protection rather than their criminalisation. It would read the data, recognise the endless wave of needless suffering it reflects, and do something to change it.

But the world does not make any sense and therefore the political class has done something else, which is actually quite startlingly insane. It has drawn the curtains, turned off the lights, and pretended that reality does not exist. It has closed itself off from expert opinion and the basic facts of narcotics use so that it can justify continuing with a demonstrably failed policy.

In many ways, drug policy was an early forerunner of post-truth politics. Anyone who tried to point out what was really happening was ignored, or, if they refused to keep ignoring reality, punished. In 2009, David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a statutory body which reports to the government on drug harms, contributed to a paper assessing the damage of various narcotics. His analysis of nine “parameters of harm” suggested alcohol was the fifth most harmful drug – after heroin, cocaine barbiturates and methadone, but ahead of LSD, ecstasy or cannabis. The response of the then-home secretary, Alan Johnson, was to dismiss him.

This is the standard operating model which successive governments have used. For decades now, parliamentary select committees have called on the government to investigate drug law reform, only to be ignored by whoever was in No.10. And that approach remains in place today. Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs was explicitly barred by the government from considering “changes to the existing legislative framework”.

It makes no difference who is in power. The policy is the same under Labour or Conservatives. There isn’t even any distinction within the parties. For all their differences, and the ferocious infighting that goes with them, you could fit a thin blue Rizla paper between the drug policy of Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. The closest we ever got to sense was Tony Blair downgrading cannabis to Class C – a decision that was soon reversed.

It doesn’t even matter what politicians’ views were on drug reform before they took office. In 2002, David Cameron was part of the home affairs committee when it recommended a discussion on “the possibility of legalisation and regulation”. Ten years later, when he was prime minister, he ruled out a suggestion from the very same home affairs committee that there should be a royal commission on drugs. No matter who sits in No.10, the view never changes. People who saw sense magically became impervious to it when in power. And then, like former home secretary Jacqui Smith, rediscover their sense after they have left it.

The curtains stay down, the lights stay off, the war on drugs continues, and all evidence discounting it is rejected.

If we were going to be honest about drugs, we would admit the following six things.

First: you cannot stop people using drugs. People have used drugs for millenia. As far as we can tell, they have done it since the dawn of man. Wherever you find a human activity that cannot be stopped, you are best off trying to regulate it, so that you can minimise harm, instead of trying to outlaw it, which will merely drive it underground.

Second: we should not try to ban drugs, even if we did have a chance of succeeding at it. It is up to people to decide what they want to put in their body. Many drugs are harmful. Even relatively harmless drugs like cannabis can suck the dynamism and ambition out of people. Other drugs, like methamphetamines, are much more dangerous. But in every case, it is people’s right to choose to do it.

Some people find that opinion shocking. And yet they at the same time believe alcohol should be legal. This simply makes no sense. Alcohol can make people violent, damage the body, and be addictive. We respond by helping those who struggle with it, while respecting the decision of those who choose to consume it. The same applies to other drugs and there is no morally consistent position to claim otherwise.

Third: our moral duty as a society is to help people who decide to take drugs. That involves providing addiction services for those who cannot stop, advice for people experimenting, and regulating the market so that drug dealers are prevented from mixing dangerous ingredients in with the active ones.

Fourth: the war on drugs has created a ceaseless grind of broken lives, in which tens of thousands of people are funnelled into prisons for a non-violent crime, where they are brutalised all over again by an under-funded system, and then become more likely to take drugs and commit crime in order to buy them. Even the caution system, which devastates young people’s professional prospects, constitutes a cruel and needlessly vindictive response to a perfectly normal youthful curiosity.

Fifth: the war on drugs ignores the rich while punishing the poor. Look at the government. Around the Cabinet table, prime minister Boris Johnson and minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove have admitted taking cocaine, while foreign secretary Dominic Rabb has admitted taking cannabis. Why are they any different from the people currently languishing in prison? Why should they be allowed to treat drugs as youthful high-jinks, when others have their lives ruined by the police response? The answer is because of their class. Overwhelmingly, people from more elevated social backgrounds avoid the brutality of the system, while those from poorer backgrounds do not. As Barack Obama said: “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do.”

Sixth: the war on drugs is racist. It was from the beginning and it still is today. Black people are stopped and searched for drugs at almost nine times the rate of whites. They are convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 times the rate, despite having lower rates of self-reported use. As a UN group of human rights experts said in 2019: “The war on drugs has operated more effectively as a system of racial control than as a mechanism for combating the use and trafficking of narcotics.”

The cruel irony is that the world around us is realising the insanity of the war of drugs, even as Britain stays trapped in its curtains-down, self-imposed blindness. In the US, state after state has experimented with drug reform. The pressure is now building at the federal level, with the House of Representatives voting to pass a bill to decriminalise cannabis late last year. In Europe, several countries are pursuing liberalisation to various degrees, including Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Britain stands increasingly alone, pursuing a deranged fantasy agenda which drives users into danger and money into gangs. The war on drugs cannot be won and it should not be won, even if it could be.

We can’t put up with another 50 years of this deranged masquerade. The price in human lives is too steep. But where is the political leader with the bravery, the insight and the backbone to say so? At the moment they are nowhere to be seen. So instead, we stay in our self-imposed madness, keeping the curtains locked down tight, patrolling the light switch, and dismissing anyone who speaks the truth.

Ian Dunt is editor-at-large for Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out now.