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Why We Should Experiment With Drug Policy

27/09/2017 14:56 BST | Updated 27/09/2017 14:56 BST

Last week, on a visit to an east London addiction charity, Prince William asked a group of recovering addicts whether drugs should be legalised. He received a mixed response, thanked them for their honesty and said his goodbyes.

In the following days, the question snowballed, with more and more people wading into the debate. A rush of newspaper columns, panel show discussions and Twitter threads were devoted to the legalisation question, but none of them converged on a single answer. Opinions about legalisation appeared to be as polarised as ever.

In fact, the two sides of the debate - those in favour of liberalising drug policy and those who advocate tougher measures - look irreconcilable. Our outlook on drugs seems to be intimately tied to our constitutive beliefs about our social identity, which makes it hard to empathise with those that take a different view. As an issue, it seems to cut to the core of what it means to be socially liberal vs what it means to be socially conservative. The result: the drugs debate is at a standstill.

This stalemate is not helped by the "the facts". In pro-decriminalisation articles, you will find statistics that show cannabis usage falling in Amsterdam. In anti-decriminalisation articles, you will find statistics about cannabis usage doubling in Alaska. Some will point to the HIV rates after Portugal de-criminalised drugs, others will point to the increased homicides. Whatever side you fall on, you will be able to find statistics that can turn your opinion into objective fact.

But underneath the impression of incompatibility there is something that everyone can agree upon: the current system is not working. Although the two sides of the debate identify different symptoms and advocate different remedies, the fundamental diagnosis is the same. They both think our society has failed to deal with illicit drugs, and it is obvious why.

It is estimated that the British government spends over £15 billion a year dealing with the impact of illegal drugs. Since 2001, the government's investment in drug treatment increased by over £500 million. But despite these efforts, drugs are causing more harm than ever. The most recent official statistics show a 6% increase in the number of drug-related hospitalisations and a 10% increase in drug-related deaths. We are investing more than ever in our drug policy, but things are getting worse.

The fact that everyone agrees the current system isn't working should mean that there is also a consensus for trialling new, innovative policies. Neither side is wedded to the status quo, so both should be open to experimenting with each other's ideas.

What's more, both sides of the debate need to embrace this open-minded methodology in order to strengthen their arguments. Despite having an armoury of stats about drug policy in other countries, the impact of drugs is culturally relative, meaning that international statistics are of limited use. Brazil's drug policy would not work in America, for example, and UK policies would not work in Libya.

Accordingly, evidence in the UK legalisation debate must come from UK based trials. If the anti-legalisation lobby want to prove that legalising drugs will cause immense harm, they should advocate controlled trials of legalisation in a UK setting. That way, the evidence will be clear. And by the same token, if the legalisation lobby think that punitive drug laws cause more harm than good, they should support trialling tougher measures to prove their point.

So, is Britain about to start large-scale drug policy trials? Of course not. Which brings us back to why the debate is so polarised.

Because our view on drug policy has become a symbol of our core values, we struggle to find any room for the open-mindedness required to undertake proper, controlled experimentation. To concede anything - to admit that this is an issue that requires further research - is to undermine our entire belief system, which is why nothing will change until Britain's liberal/reactionary gridlock evolves. For the time being, we are stuck with a shared dissatisfaction with our current drug policy.