Governments Can No Longer Ignore the Evidence - Drug Decriminalisation Benefits Society

14/03/2016 13:21 | Updated 14 March 2016

Public health crises in the form of HIV and hepatitis C epidemics. Hundreds of executions every year in violation of international human rights law. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands dead in the past decade from drug war-related violence. Millions dying each year in agony because they can't access essential pain relief medications. These are just a handful of the ignominious outcomes created by a punitive approach to drug control.

With governments channelling an estimated $100billion into combating the drug trade annually you would expect some semblance of success. Yet, drugs are arguably more available today than they ever have been and the number of people who use drugs every year is close to 250 million, up nearly 20 per cent since 2006. Even by governments' own metrics, the crackdown on people who use drugs has been an unequivocal failure, bringing out significant harms in the process.

But the tide is shifting. As our new report - A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Across the Globe - launched today shows, there are an increasing number of countries moving toward a model that no longer criminalises people who use drugs, with tremendous results when done effectively.

Portugal is, of course, the most notable success. Following implementation of its decriminalisation law in 2001 - and owing to investment in health and harm reduction services - the number of injecting drug users fell 40 per cent in the first seven years, new cases of HIV among people who use drugs plummeted from 907 in 2001 to 78 in 2013, and drug-related deaths dropped markedly.

Expanding beyond the positive public health outcomes decriminalisation can bring, A Quiet Revolution highlights how this model has broader societal benefits. In Australia, for example, evidence shows that those who receive a criminal record for simple drug possession, compared to those who receive a civil response suffer sis shown to have a significant negative effects on people's their education, employment and housing opportunities, and means they are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, decriminalisation can save the state enormous sums of money - $1billion was saved in law enforcement costs in California over the first 10 years of decriminalising cannabis possession.

And, despite what detractors of drug policy reform feared, the sky isn't falling in in these countries. In fact, decriminalisation is shown to not lead to an increase in drug use. Surely all of these outcomes considered would make such a policy option attractive to the UK government, right?

Decriminalisation in the UK context

'Our drug policy is working. Drug use is falling,' or some variation thereof continues to be the Conservative government's line, steadfast in its blind belief that the UK's punitive laws are driving this trend. This is despite the Home Office's admission in a 2014 report that after reviewing different drug policy models across the world - from Portugal's decriminalisation laws to harsh regimes of criminalisation - the conclusion to draw was the following:

'[W]e did not ... observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country's enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.'

One would have hoped this to be a eureka moment for the government, the realisation that criminalising people for simple possession offences was unnecessary due to its lack of impact on their favourite metric, drug use. Yet, sadly it was not to be. The country is still criminalising up to 70,000 (mainly young) people every year for drug possession for personal use, damaging their future education, employment and housing opportunities in the process. And this is far from being a sanction that's evenly handed down, with black and ethnic minority groups disproportionately targeted despite their levels of drug use being comparable or lower than among the white population.

Ultimately, though, the government's fixation on drug use levels as an indicator of success is entirely misplaced. Drug-related deaths are currently at an all time high as a result of criminalisation and a treatment environment, which at least at a policy level, puts harm reduction alongside abstinence with some services focussed on drug free outcomes rather than reducing the harms associated with problem drug use. This is hardly a welcoming environment for many of the most vulnerable and marginalised people.

Combine this fact with the resources being ploughed into drug law enforcement (well over £1 billion annually) and the tens of thousands of people whose futures are ruined by a criminal record, and you have to ask - how should we actually be viewing success in drug policy? Even if decriminalisation were to result in a slight uptick in use levels - which we have shown in our report does not happen - so what?!? If people are able to access information on how to use more safely (something which is not immediately available under punitive drug laws), public health is improved by the fall in drug-related deaths and people are no longer omitted from work or education opportunities because of a sanction that is wholly disproportionate to the offence, then this is undeniably for the better.

The arguments against reform are typically grounded in a puritanical ideology that is detrimental to good public policy. Drug use has existed in societies for millennia and is not going anywhere. We need better approaches to drug control, and in light of the evidence of decriminalisation's outcomes, this policy is a good way to start.