It’s probably fair to say that 2016 will not go down in history as one of our finest years.

Donald Trump won the White House, catastrophic war raged on in Syria and the Levant, and climate changed produced the hottest year on record, again. Oh, and David Bowie died. As did Prince. As did George Michael. So it’s been rather dark.

But what happened in the world of drugs during 2016?

On the surface, things haven’t been good here either. Opioid deaths are at all-time highs in the UK, whilst in the US and Canada Fentanyl and Carfentanil have wreaked havoc, leaving a trail of shattered lives and broken homes in their wake. Further afield, Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has killed thousands in the Philippines. The prohibitionist’s “drug free world” rhetoric has never looked more absurd.

Rodrigo Duterte. (Wikimedia Commons)
Rodrigo Duterte. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it’s not all been bad news. February saw the launch of not one but two new players in the drug policy reform world. The first being yours truly – VolteFace.

We’ve been around since the end of 2015, but our official launch – at Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road – announced the true beginning of what was to become a highly eventful year.

VolteFace have, over the past 11 months, hosted lectures and panel discussions from leading reformers including Ethan NadelmannMaia Szalavitz, and Johann Hari, published work both online and in print from some of the country’s leading journalists, and released groundbreaking policy reports into cannabis and prisons. It has been a busy first year.

The second organisation to officially launch in February was LEAP UK. The UK branch of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, LEAP is a vital voice in the ongoing fight for drug law reform.

Throughout the year LEAP have found innovative ways of spreading their core message to those outside of the policy reform bubble, which include producing the always-brilliant Stop & Search Podcast, and former undercover policeman Neil Woods’ hugely popular memoir, Good Cop Bad War.

Stop and Search Podcast - Ian Birrell, Julian Huppert and Neil Woods (left to right). (Leap)
Stop and Search Podcast – Ian Birrell, Julian Huppert and Ian Dunt (left to right). (Leap)

The first global drug policy event of the year took place in April, with representatives from countries across the globe descending on New York for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on ‘the world drug problem.’

Unsurprisingly, the outcome of this meeting was decidedly less than inspiring. The UN were not about to abandon the war on drugs, that much was clear. But it was far from doom and gloom across the board. The authorities made no attempt to clamp down on countries – such as Portugal, Mexico, and Canada – who are making moves to end the punitive approach to drug policy that UN treaties supposedly force them into. If nothing else, UNGASS showed the world that legalisation and regulation are very much on the table – that those drug conventions are no longer worth the paper they’re written on.

Back in the UK, however, drug policy was about to take another giant leap backwards, with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act.

This law, which banned the sale of ‘psychoactive substances’ (a term so vague even the authors of the Act have no idea what it means), turned centuries of British legal tradition on its head. No longer were citizens’ rights implied unless specifically denied by law. From May, and the introduction of this draconian Act, everything was illegal to consume unless the law specifically allowed it. It may not have criminalised use, but the PSA was still a stark reminder of just how far behind the times the country is when it comes to drug policy.

President Santos at the UNGASS. (Source: Ann Fordham)
President Santos at the UNGASS. (Source: Ann Fordham)

Away from the actual policy, however, there has been some cause for optimism in the UK.

The closure of Fabric in September provoked a national conversation about what can be done to better protect drug users in our nation’s nightclubs. And whilst Fabric would eventually be allowed to reopen with extremely strict and unhelpful restrictions in place, the conversation was carried on by organisations such as The Loop, who took their drug-testing facilities to various music festivals, allowing consumers to check the safety and purity of the substances they had bought before they used them. It would not be hyperbolic to say that such testing almost certainly saved lives, and the fact that it was allowed to do so by festival organisers, local authorities, and the police, suggests a change in attitude toward drugs and harm reduction that is not necessarily reflected in government policy.

Another example of this change in attitude came from a seemingly unlikely source – Police & Crime Commissioners.

Most notably, Ron Hogg, PCC for Durham, along with his Chief Constable Mike Barton, have been increasingly vocal about the need to stop treating drugs as a criminal matter. The pair made national headlines when it was announced that they had decided to de-prioritise the policing of cannabis in their area. In other words, the police were no longer going to go after you for smoking a bit of weed or growing a couple of plants. In theory at least, unless you were really pushing it in their faces, they’d leave you alone.

Unsurprisingly, this stance caused outrage among certain sections of the press, but against the odds more PCCs have followed suit. It may for the most part be an economic issue for the heads of cash-strapped police forces, but the fact is that when serving senior police officers are coming out in support of a change in the law, that can only be a positive sign for the future.

Ron Hogg speaks to Tom Lloyd, Chairman of the National Cannabis Coalition. (Photo by Alastair Moore)
Ron Hogg speaks to Tom Lloyd, Chairman of the National Cannabis Coalition. (Photo by Alastair Moore)

Hogg’s conversion to the cause was brought about in part by the work of the United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, who also enjoyed a successful year on the ground, if not necessarily in the halls of power.

This year saw the UKCSCs hold their first AGM, as well as protest events up and down the country, including Green Pride in Brighton and the annual 4/20 gatherings in London and Glasgow. As a movement they continue to go from strength to strength, and will I’m sure continue to do so as their plans for tagged 9-plant collectives come to fruition.

Sticking with cannabis, September saw the release of the All Party Parliamentary Group for drug policy reform report into medicinal cannabis, recommending that the UK follow the lead of other European countries like the Netherlands and Germany in legalising medical cannabis. It was, of course, rejected out of hand by the government, but it helped ensure that cannabis was never far from the news in 2016.

Cannabis was not the only drug in the news, however. As mentioned earlier, opioid deaths have continued to rise in 2016, despite the government’s insistence that drug policy is working because use is falling.

As a result, harm reduction measures for heroin users have been in the press more than ever before. Whilst still very much a taboo subject within government – who rejected a report from the ACMD which recommended harm reduction measures – some headway has been made. Officials in Glasgow are pressing ahead with plans to open the country’s first supervised injection facility for heroin users, and whilst we’re still a long way from the real, structural change needed to address the issue properly and stop people from dying, this is a step in the right direction.

It would be naive to suggest that this has been a particularly great year for drug policy in the UK, but the fact that so many issues are in the limelight now that would previously have been dismissed as fringe, shows that at the very least, this is a time of progress. This is a time in which we must grasp the nettle and continue to push for reform harder than ever to ensure that any small gains we may have made are not swallowed up by the negatives.

Injecting kit from a needle exchange programme (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Injecting kit from a needle exchange programme (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nowhere is a better illustration of this than the United States. In November, they took what should have been a huge step toward full-scale reform of their cannabis laws when 4 more states – including California – voted to legalise and regulate the recreational use of marijuana.

The joy was short-lived, however, as the reality of a Trump presidency was soon felt. Barely 10 days after the vote, before the dust had barely settled, Trump announced his pick for Attorney General – Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (better known as Jeff) – an anti-drug warrior who’s not so much of a throwback as he is a museum exhibit (who claims that “good people don’t smoke marijuana”). It remains to be seen whether or not he will attempt to roll back the tide of reform, but he is an example of the kind of roadblock that can be thrown up, even when it feels as though the march of progress has become unstoppable. A reminder that we cannot take our foot off the gas or our eye off the ball for one second.

Not only that, he is indicative of the uncertain future for drug policy reform as we enter 2017. The hope is that he, along with Duterte and the rest, merely represent the last desperate flailing of a prohibitionist regime that knows its time is up. The fear is that they represent a resurgence. We cannot know what is going to come to pass in the next year, but what we can do as reformers and campaigners is ensure that any failings on our part are not through a lack of effort. The green shoots of progress are clear for all to see, here’s to their continued growth in 2017.

Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real, and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Tweets @sullivandeej

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