The Blog

Moving Beyond the War on Drugs: Using Evidence to Tackle the Causes of Drug Use

Last week I hosted an open debate about substance misuse. It proved so popular we spent the evening adding chairs at the back of the room. In the midst of an election focused on austerity, inequality and our housing crisis, why is it that so many people still feel so strongly about drugs?

The panel and I agreed that:

  • The "war on drugs" has failed - by any measure you choose to use to assess it
  • Unregulated drug use is one of the biggest causes of crime in the UK and accounts for a trillion dollar underground global economy that is destabilising governments and resulting in thousands of deaths worldwide
  • Personal substance misuse should be dealt with primarily as a social health rather than a criminal justice issue
  • We must begin a much more mature, open and evidence based policy development, that will achieve control of production and supply, and the eventual significant reduction in harms to society

So now what?

The UK has persisted with tough laws, but the Home Office's own International Comparators report (Oct, 2014) found no evidence that there is a link between being tough on drugs and reductions in drug use. Our approach to drug regulation is therefore anything but evidenced based. The former chief scientific advisor, David Nutt, famously challenged the last Labour government to review the UK's sentencing laws, given that there is no evident relationship between the health risks of a particular drug and the extent of criminal publishment associated with it. Rather than explore this idea however, Labour fired David Nutt as the chief scientific advisor.

The current government has continued to resist calls to look at the evidence and review drug policy in the UK. These calls for review have not just come from comparisons abroad and scientific evidence, Mike Barton the chief constable in county Durham has also called on the government to end the war on drugs and cut criminal groups from their main source of income. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform came to the same conclusion in 2013: Baroness Meacher (who chaired the group) argued that the current "Misuse of Drugs Act is counter-productive in attempting to reduce drug addiction and other drug harms to young people".

These calls have all fallen on deaf ears. Drugs continue to fuel organized crime, are easily accessible, and users are marginalized rather than gaining access to support and services needed to overcome addiction.

Who ever forms the next government, we are calling on them to set up a Royal Commission to review drug policy in the UK. At the heart of this review needs to be a conversation about what drug taking means to us. Are people who take drugs morally wrong? Should drug addiction be seen as a mental health issue? Does drug taking reflect broader failings of a consumerist individualistic society?

This review needs to investigate specific responses to specific drugs. A blanket legalization is unlikely to be successful, and again we need to learn from what has worked abroad. The Portuguese model teaches us that the debate regarding drug policy is not simply between two alternatives of a tough criminalization of drug use vs a free for all on drug sale and use. Portuguese citizens found in possession of small quantities of drugs may not face criminal prosecution but are required to meet with a Dissuasion Commission. This commission provides an effective route for ensuring that uses get directed toward treatment and eventually can be helped out of drug use.

We need to put evidence at the heart of any review of drugs policy. Fundamental research from Prof Bruce Alexander and colleagues from the 1970s revealed that susceptibility to drug use in other animals is highly dependent upon the environment in which they live. Indeed a more recent review in Progress in Neurobiology by Solinos and colleagues concludes that both prevention and treatment are highly dependent upon the nature of an animal's living environment. Translating this research to policy would require that we should not simply view drug use as a moral or personal failing but we should be looking at the contextual factors that make people susceptible to drug use. Further research in the Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences quite literally shows that drug addiction can be reversed by making changes to an animal's surroundings. Clearly we need to explore whether personal changes (such as enforced state employment for unemployed addicts) could provide a more effective and cost effective means of reducing drug use and the associated health and crime issues that normally ensue.

The upcoming election will offer the next government an opportunity to review how could exploit successful models abroad and fundamental research to provide a more effective and evidence based strategy in reducing drug use. The Green Party of England and Wales is committed to supporting such a review when the next parliament forms. We are calling on all parties in the UK to make the same commitment going into the election.

Before You Go