Drugs law: deregulation or re-regulation?

The one thing that does not feature prominently in the drugs debate is the question of personal choice.

Frank Jordans

Topics Politics

Drugs policy appears to be on the verge of change.

Despite the UK government’s continued insistence on a ‘war on drugs’, a number of progressive initiatives are underway, and calls for the decriminalisation of ‘soft’ drugs are reaching crescendo.

On 2 July 2001 the Metropolitan Police launched a scheme in the London borough of Lambeth, in which police would let off with a warning those found in possession of small amounts of cannabis (1). By the end of that week, the UK Daily Telegraph had published a comment by Peter Lilley, formerly social security secretary under John Major, arguing for the licensed sale of soft drugs, and other senior Conservatives had started calling for a ‘major debate on the legalisation of cannabis’ (2).

But as the UK government quietly prepares itself for a debate on changing the law on drugs, the one thing that will not feature prominently is the question of personal choice. All sides in this debate will seek to increase, rather than decrease, government regulation.

The strongest argument against prohibition is that it does not stop people from using drugs. Between 1994 and 1998, it is estimated that the percentage of young people aged 16 to 29 who had used cannabis rose from 34 percent to 42 percent; the number of young ecstasy users rose from six percent to 10 percent; cocaine use doubled and the number of young amphetamine-users went up by six percent (3). Since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the number of registered heroin addicts has increased by almost 2000 percent (4).

And many argue that it makes little sense to uphold a law that is, in practice, unenforceable. As drug use becomes more widespread, there is a danger that people become increasingly alienated from a law that stands in stark contrast to their own experience. Scotland Yard chief John Stevens recently acknowledged that the ‘war on drugs’ is not working, pointing to the ‘high profits’ that can be made from selling drugs (5). (What he failed to explain was why profits are so high, or why, despite ceaseless (anti-)drugs education, people are still choosing to take them.)

The arguments for prohibition largely rest on the notion that addicts commit crimes to finance their habit. In fact, very few drug users are ‘addicts’. Keith Hellawell, the government’s former drug tsar, has noted that addicts constitute ‘by far the minority of illegal drug users – between 100,000 and 200,000 people’ (6). And many ‘drug crimes’ result simply from the fact that taking drugs is considered a criminal activity. Approximately 100,000 arrests every year are due solely to the illegal status of cannabis. Some research suggests that crime tends to predate and facilitate drug use, rather than the other way around (7).

Of course, drugs can be dangerous – some more so than others. But on the whole, the problem with drugs is that they are illegal.

Even the UK government-sponsored Runciman Commission came to the conclusion that the current state of affairs does more harm than good (8). In this context, the ethos of ‘harm reduction’ has found favour both with experts and the public. For example, social workers, who deal with the effects of drug prohibition every day, argue that by lifting the prohibition on ‘soft drugs’ and concentrating resources on ‘hard’ drugs, potential future disasters might be prevented – such as the rise of Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users.

Why, then, is New Labour so cautious about following expert recommendations, to the point of being the only major party not to have supported the establishment of a royal commission to look into decriminalisation? (9) It seems that the government is content to sit back and let others tread the path, in the knowledge that any foray into the jungle of drugs policy reform is lined with pitfalls. By doing so, New Labour can experiment with new forms of regulation while keeping up the façade of the ‘war on drugs’.

Look at the way drug dealers are increasingly presented as the scourge of civilised society, thereby justifying the need for all manner of new legislation. New Labour’s latest plan is to confiscate the assets and passports of suspected, though not necessarily convicted, drug traffickers (10). What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Eavesdropping bills regularly invoke the spectre of drug rings using sophisticated communications equipment, making it necessary for the police to get ‘special powers’ to intercept their plans (11). These ‘special powers’ give the police carte blanche to mount sweeping surveillance operations, if they have even the slightest suspicion that drugs might be found.

New Labour’s election manifesto pledged to require drug dealers to ‘register with the police after leaving prison’, presumably in the same manner as paedophiles (12).

Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs) are now being used to send offenders who use drugs to treatment centres, rather than to prison. Those who refuse get harsher sentences (13). From July 2001 police officers in the London borough of Hackney, on the other side of town from Lambeth, pioneered the policy of giving compulsory drug tests to those arrested for shoplifting, robbery and burglary. This policy of blaming everything on the demon drug and forcing people to undergo therapy is perhaps the clearest indication of where the new policy of compassionate crackdowns is taking us: further away from notions of personal responsibility, and towards ever-more regulation and control (14).

Liberal campaigners who might believe that they are winning the debate should be wary of getting what they asked for. It may turn out that the result is much less liberal than they originally conceived. Having shown convincingly that the law does not work, campaigners have not managed to make the case for deregulation. Rather, they have inadvertently provided the government with an excuse for re-regulation.

While it would be unrealistic to expect the government to abandon its attempts at controlling the trade and use of drugs all at once, the objective of ‘harm reduction’ continues to ignore the possibility that people might be able to take drugs responsibly. Instead, it perpetuates the notion that politicians know us better than we know ourselves, and that we need constraints to stop us giving in to our irresistible temptation for self-destruction.

Read on:

Drugs: child’s play, by Neil Davenport

(1) Cannabis warning trial starts, BBC News Online, 2 July 2001

(2) Let people buy cannabis at off-licences, says Lilley, Daily Telegraph, 6 July 2001

(3) See Annual report on the state of the drugs problem in the European Union 2000, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

(4) See Report of the
Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
(Runciman Report), 1999

(5) Yard ‘losing war against drugs’, Evening Standard, 28 June 2001

(6) See Report of the UK Anti-Drugs Coordinator, April 1998

(7) J Chaiken and M Chaiken 1990 ‘Drugs and predatory crime’, p 203-239 in M Tonry and J Wilson (eds), Drugs and Crime, University of Chicago Press

(8) See Report of the
Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
(Runciman Report), 1999

(9) Cannabis will remain illegal, says tsar, Guardian, 10 January 2001

(10) Crime assets seizures open to abuse, warns liberties group, Guardian, 23 May 2000

(11) That charter for snoopers, Guardian, 19 July 2000

(12) Blair wants register of drug dealers, Guardian, 19 February 2001

(13) Blunkett spells out threat to drug-user criminals, Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2001. An explanation of these DTTO’s can be found here

(14) Drug test on all criminals, Evening Standard, 11 July 2001 ; see also Home Office press release, 19 February 2001

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Topics Politics


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