For those advocating a radical alternative to the war on drugs, lots needs to happen.
In being such an intersectional agenda, a vision beyond prohibition would begin to reshape economic, legal, criminal justice and environmental parameters embedded in society. In accepting drug use in the same way as alcohol consumption, a more empathetic and informed approach could be rolled out. Money used to fight criminal gangs could be poured into social services aiding the most vulnerable. Regulation would reduce personal harm and lead to sustainable production methods less dependent on environmental destruction.
Yet, for this to occur, significant structural change is required. Like with the climate crisis, encouraging people to fly less is not going to have a ground-breaking impact on emissions. A fundamental challenge to rampant economic growth and billionairism permitted by capitalism is needed. However, in always advocating for a structural overhaul, smaller responses become overlooked by progressives seeking systemic solutions.
In the drugs realm, campaigning for the legalisation and regulation of all substances can often mean that ‘solutions’ within a prohibition framework are ignored. Some harm-reduction efforts undoubtedly fall into this category. They don’t necessarily present reforms that tackle supply, regulation or criminalisation. However, they provide much needed responses that most importantly save lives.
Therefore, when the Tories recently announced a £5million fund to tackle fatal drug deaths across the UK, I tried to take a step back and not turn my nose up. In this unveiling, twelve projects have been granted funds to develop unique solutions involving AI and other technologies to “prevent overdoses and save lives”. It is not an agenda that seeks to dismantle the oppressive structures of criminalisation that ultimately allow thousands of drug deaths. Nor is the money involved substantial compared to the billions propping up the war on drugs.
However, it does signify an acceptance of reality at last. People across Britain are increasingly managing a landscape where overdoses are prominent. Many experience an overdose without any support, thus leading to tragic fatalities. As George Freeman, the Science, Innovation and Technology Minister, states:
“Every single death from drug misuse is a tragedy” and “thousands every year are avoidable with better detection and faster intervention”.
Each year, around 4,000 people die from an avoidable drug overdose in Britain. In 2021, nearly half of all drug poisoning deaths involved an opiate. This becomes more worrying considering the impacts of the Taliban’s ban on opium production in Afghanistan, where 95% of the UK’s heroin derives from. With supplies becoming less available, dangerous opiates are replacing this demand, thus creating more uncertainty. Nitazene-related deaths, a powerful illicit opioid that can sometimes be more potent than fentanyl, exemplify this. It is apparent harm reduction measures are desperately needed.
Of the projects involved in this fund, the development of wearable devices that alert emergency services and local providers when an overdose is detected features numerous times. Other pilots focus on the deployment of naloxone – the lifesaving medicine that reverses an opioid overdose. This comes in innovative ways, using drone deliveries and ‘RescuePatches’ that non-professionals can use to help someone experiencing a potentially fatal overdose. One project will recruit 200 residents of homeless accommodation to trial a discrete biosensor that will detect the onset of life-threatening respiratory depression to alert nearby carriers of naloxone. The initiatives are led by university researchers and local service providers, seeking to improve accessibility to life-saving treatments through ground-breaking technology.
However, despite my optimism, an air of frustration exists. It feels that this effort to incorporate AI is part of a wider PR effort to show the ‘modernisation’ agenda that healthcare in Britain ‘requires’. Moreover, it is baffling to know that the Tories will happily consider the use of drones delivering naloxone but not allow for drug consumption spaces – a proven success in reducing drug-related death rates in cities like Vancouver and Copenhagen. To this day, no deaths have ever been recorded in an overdose prevention centre. Why can we not pilot this scheme? Why can we not look to improve drug education across schools and universities? These are not complex initiatives to implement that cost the taxpayer huge amounts. De-stigmatisation, although not the end point, would have a profound effect in building a more empathetic environment.
Additionally, the technological and futuristic atmosphere surrounding these initiatives does seem detached from the compassionate, human intervention needed to succeed in this area. Those experiencing problematic drug usage most vulnerable to overdosing are people who have slipped thorough the nets of society. It is likely to be people who have experienced trauma, lived in poverty or suffered horrific childhood experiences. Empathy needs to be at the centre of any solution – something not overly present here. Also, from a practical perspective, trying to convince marginalised people to take technical devices will be incredibly difficult.
Therefore, I find myself in an unusual position. I do not want to completely shun the £5 million policy initiative, knowing that it does have the potential to save lives. Yet, I find myself wanting to be pessimistic, even after trying my hardest not to be. Maybe I lack much faith in a government that has previously shown little intent to help victim users of the drug war? Do I not fully realise the benefits of AI and the role it can play in the health service?
Ultimately, in the unitary British political system, where the media cycle is controlled by the right wing, departures from the status quo rarely occur. Harm reduction efforts within this prohibition regime are as radical as policy is likely to get. Yet, this does not mean that these programmes should not be welcomed or supported. They still have a profound real-life impact and are goals supported by grassroots charities who know the needs of the local population.
Seeing initiatives to medicate naloxone to users at risk from a fatal overdose is always welcomed. I just hope this can be accompanied by other measures, like allowing safe drug consumption rooms/overdose prevention centres to be rolled out, rather than being a stand-alone pilot scheme. If this can be achieved, reducing many deaths and improving lives will inevitably be seen. In turn, it makes a path to drug decriminalisation a little less far away.
Matt is a freelance journalist for Volteface and aspiring policymaker on drug reform. His most notable project to date was undertaking research in Chicago on cannabis social equity measures in Illinois, contributing to an emerging field of policy analysis in the process. Matt is particularly invested in liberalising the UK’s approach to decriminalisation and harm reduction. For any queries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.