10 Things Society Must Realise in Order to End the Drug War

20/12/2013 10:35 GMT | Updated 18/02/2014 10:59 GMT

1. Addiction is a medical problem

Neurological examinations of addicts have shown that people with an over-active amygdala (the part of the brain that activates stress) are predisposed to using drugs in order to reduce their natural predisposition to anxiety. Moreover, altered levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with the reward-motivated behaviour) can lead to more impulsive behaviour and raise the brain's threshold for stimulation. Stimulants like caffeine, cocaine and meth amplify the effects of dopamine and, for those with a pre-existing imbalance, can create a reliance on stimulants in order to function. The British Medical Association recognises addiction as an illness, and their report 'Drugs of Dependece' states that: "we should show understanding of the illness of drug addiction and respond in the way that we would with any other medical problem"

2. Rehabilitation is more cost-effective than punishment

A person caught supplying, sharing or producing Class A drugs in the UK still faces the possibility of life imprisonment. The imprisoning of drug users is not only a great cost to the taxpayer (£47,000 a year), but also increases a user's probability of returning to prison. Of those in prison for less than 12 months, 57.8% will go on to re-offend. Considering that an eight-week residential detox programme with abstinence-based recovery centre Focus12 costs only £6,000 - it seems that there are much more cost-effective ways of preventing addicts from using. The aftercare provided by groups such as Focus12 also helps users more swiftly re-integrate into society, and avoid ending up back in prison.

3. Decriminalising drug use doesn't mean encouraging drug use

Some right-wing commentators argue that the penal system is a deterrent, and believe that decriminalisation would lead to rampant drug taking. But just ask yourself: if drugs were decriminalised tomorrow, would you immediately go out and try to score some heroin? Moreover, there are much easier ways to diminish the public's use of dangerous substances. In the late 1950s, around 80% of the UK population were cigarette smokers. Yet through the changing of societal attitudes, health education, the introduction of age limits for buying tobacco, the banning of adverts, health warnings on packaging, and a small fine for smoking indoors; we have managed to lower that figure to 16.7% by 2013. Nicotine addicts are also able to talk openly with healthcare professionals, friends and family if they want to get help to quit, and never have to worry about being judged or incarcerated for speaking openly about their habit. Breaking the taboo surrounding hard drugs can help heroin, meth and cocaine addicts get medical help to quit, rather than offending and re-offending as a result of their addiction.

4. Regulation is preferable to prohibition

Despite spending £13.3 billion a year fighting drug-related crime in the UK, less than 1% of illegal drugs are thought to be seized by the police, and it is still incredibly simple for users to pick up in most parts of the country. The total lack of regulation within the drug market means that many dealers are willing to sell product of dangerously low quality to consumers of any age. It must also be remembered that statistics regarding deaths from illegal drugs refer to 'street drugs'; which are of low qualities, and sold to people of various ages. The regulation of the production and sale of these drugs would undoubtedly lower the number of people needlessly dying after using contaminated substances. Moreover, given that 8.2% of the adult population used an illegal drug last year (with 6.2% using cannabis) the possible tax revenue that would be generated from safe, regulated, recreational drug use could be better spent treating those with more dangerous addictions, rather than funding drug dealers.

5. The illegal drug market is exploiting the poor and funding criminal gangs

The UN estimates that the international illegal drug trade is worth $400 billion per year. The overwhelming majority of these profits end up in the hands of unethical money-laundering bankers, violent drug cartels and criminal gangs. Operating outside the law, the criminals involved in the drug trade will use any means possible to maximise profit. Child labour, human trafficking, economic exploitation and murder have all become necessities in order to compete in a violent and ruthless market. The cartels are only going to become more vicious the longer that the drug trade remains outside of the law. As much money as possible needs to be taken away from criminal gangs and instead invested into local, regulated economies (and the public purse through taxation) so that opportunities for the underprivileged can be improved. In the UK, 6.8% of people with an annual household income of less than £10,000 are frequent drug users, compared to 1.4% of those with household incomes of over £50,000. The focus must be on taking power and wealth from violent criminals, whilst also creating living conditions in which those worst off don't have to turn to the illegal drug trade as a last resort.

6. Police 'stop and search' is failing our communities

The police's current power to stop and search people in the street based on "reasonable suspicion" is ostensibly a tool to protect communities from weapons and drug-related crime. However, after the Tottenham riots of 2011, 85% of rioters that were interviewed identified anger at police practices as a key factor in why the violence happened; with 70% of the rioters having been subjected to a police stop and search within the last year. Distrust of the police in ethnic minority communities is perhaps unsurprising, given that you are 28 times more likely to be searched if you are black, and 10 times more likely if you are Asian. Despite the obvious racist profiling used by the police - and the invasive nature of frisking citizens in the street based on the whim of a police officer - only 2.3% of searches in 2010-11 led to an arrest. Given that an average search takes 16 minutes, is there not better ways for the police to spend their time? Perhaps assessing actual evidence in order to stop violent criminals would be more conducive to protecting communities than aggravating innocent citizens and fuelling animosity toward the police service.

7. Young people should expect to be taught the truth

Just as there is distrust in the police system, any education system that tells children that all drugs are equally bad is doing more harm than good. As soon as a young person experiments with softer drugs and realises that they have been lied to, there will be a natural curiosity to see if they have been misled about other substances. It is therefore critical that education on the effects of drugs and alcohol is available to all in society. The onus must be on giving young people as honest and accurate information as possible. Even if the idea of teachers speaking frankly about drug use may seem scary to some; it is surely better that children learn about the effects of hard drugs in school, rather than from a pusher or through personal experimentation.

8. Drug law should be rational, evidence-based and consistent

According to research by the World Health Organisation, Alcohol is responsible for 2.5 million deaths per year, whilst tobacco was responsible for 100 million deaths in the 20th century (more than both World Wars combined). In the UK, 47% of violent criminal offences are believed to be committed under the influence of alcohol; whilst total alcohol-related harm costs our society £21 billion per year. Tobacco, meanwhile, is responsible for 40% of all hospital illnesses and 20% of UK deaths. Despite the overwhelming damage these drugs do to our society, it would be bizarre if the government attempted to tackle the problem by locking up drinkers and smokers. So why arrest people for possession of cannabis and MDMA, two drugs that lead to zero deaths per year as a result of overdose? LSD, shrooms and ketamine all cause less harm to users and society than alcohol and tobacco, yet remain prohibited. Drug legislation needs to be consistent, evidence-based, and proportional to the problems that are caused in society.

9. Testing medicinal drugs can prevent suffering

The lack of evidence-based government policy means that scientific research into the possible health benefits of banned substances is nearly impossible, due to the bureaucracy that surrounds testing illegal drugs. Britain is failing thousands of patients seeking relief from the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, AIDS, chemotherapy, chronic pain, epilepsy, glaucoma, arthritis, PTSD, depression, and insomnia. Clinical trials of the drugs like cannabis could result in affordable treatment for NHS patients who are suffering from preventable pain. Instead, people with serious illnesses are sourcing unclean street drugs from criminal gangs, or facing the threat of prison for producing their own treatment. More research into the effects of currently illegal drugs needs to be undertaken in order to better inform the population and provide medical care to those who are suffering.

10. We must question whether current drug laws are legitimate

As a society we need a serious paradigm shift regarding how much we allow the government to interfere with our free choices as citizens. The vast majority of people using illegal drugs in the UK are not addicts, but are perfectly functional members of society who enjoy drugs recreationally. How is it justified for the government to decide what consenting adults in a free society choose to do for fun? Responsible public spending on healthcare and education can result in a well-informed population, who are aware of the risks associated with drugs - but who are still free to make their own decisions. The law is meant to protect citizens from harm, yet the drug war has turned the poor into drug users, drug users into criminals and actual criminals into millionaires. It is time we realised that compassion is more beneficial than punishment, and accept that evidence-based drug policy is the way forward.