Why is British Drug Policy so Disjointed?

by Matt Bishop


In early January, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a tentative degree of policy experimentation by piloting, in three boroughs, a diversion scheme whereby young people in possession of small amounts of cannabis would be offered counselling and support instead of arrest, the Metropolitan Police were out in Shoreditch conducting their own diversion scheme, swabbing revellers to deflect attention from the relentless failures of Britain’s drug war.

The latter were rightly ridiculed: rather than keeping people safe, such high-profile Potemkin PR stunts represent little more than disposable social media fodder. But they can be extremely damaging, insulting the intelligence of a drug-literate and increasingly prohibition-sceptical public, exacerbating the harms caused by unduly aggressive, partial and discriminatory policing in an unwinnable war with decaying legitimacy, and diverting resources from the very real threats to people’s substantive security which require serious, long-term investments in community-based policing, economic development and social programming.

These are precisely the things that have been jettisoned since the dawn of austerity a decade ago, whereupon poverty rates, homelessness, drug-related deaths, gang activity, county lines exploitation and knife violence have ballooned and Britain has found itself dealing (or, rather, not dealing) with the fallout of a sustained process of un-development.

Conflicted Policy

How can two arms of the state, which are operating in the same spaces, pursue divergent approaches to essentially the same problem? Perhaps they are not actually that distinct, since both rest firmly within the boundaries of prohibitionism: despite some overly optimistic pronouncements predicated on hopeful misunderstandings of the important distinctions between diversion, depenalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation, Khan’s experiment, like all incremental reform, falls well short of substantive change.

But the intended direction of travel is obviously very different: the Mayor’s tinkering may be timid, but it is unquestionably predicated on harm reduction principles and carries enormously positive consequences for those that do benefit from it, in the sense of not being arrested, criminalised, potentially even imprisoned, and having their lives ruined. By the same token, the Met’s action points in the other direction: the very worst and most hollow posturing that has always been at the heart of policy based on enforcement.

This disjuncture is all the more puzzling, both because the Mayor’s Office plays a key role in choosing the Commissioner and shaping the Met’s approach, and, like many other forces, it has – whether overtly or more tacitly – depenalised and diverted drug users for years anyway. This builds on the brilliant work undertaken by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and its Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) which, like its counterparts elsewhere in the UK, has done as much as it can within fairly tightly constrained parameters to embed harm reduction and public health principles in its programmes.

My colleague, Matt Bacon, has even argued that policing has actually undergone a subtle cultural shift of late in which diversion schemes are rapidly becoming the norm, rather than the exception, which only renders the images from Shoreditch even odder.

In general, though, contemporary British drug policy has little coherent direction: like many agendas under this tired and bungling government, it is a fantastical mishmash of expertise-denying dogma and anachronistic ideology in which unicorns range free impervious to evidence of their inexistence.

Occasionally, reality intrudes a little too far, and the edges of this fiction are softened slightly by the half-baked and ill-informed cherrypicking of discrete elements of this initiative or that idea – ‘Portugal!’, ‘safe consumption!’, ‘diversion!’ – which only renders the Frankensteinian monster even more grotesquely appended. So, policy continually pays lip service to the troubled rhetoric and motifs of prohibition – i.e. the language of crackdowns and securitisation, with images of sporadic and ineffectual militarised drug seizures staged for the cameras – while implicitly allowing the criminal narcoeconomy to flourish.

It advocates ludicrously hard-line policing strategies that it will never comprehensively (or even partially) implement, because the resources to do so simply do not exist and it would be counter-productive anyway. And it criminalises cannabis cultivators and consumers while clumsily part-legalising a circumscribed medical sector in which they are excluded from participating and making – albeit very quietly – semi-progressive noises about harm reduction.

This can be seen clearly in the launch of the new drugs strategy, From Harm to Hope in late 2021. On the one hand, our trivia-obsessed media were kept happy with pictures of Boris Johnson in a stab vest and Priti Patel threatening implausible crackdowns – including the removal of passports and football hooligan-style banning orders – from users.

On the other, the strategy itself was starkly at odds with how it was trailed publicly: while not ‘progressive’ in any meaningfully reformist sense, it did advocate some interesting and thoughtful initiatives – including the kind of diversion strategies that have placed Khan on the defensive and which were advocated in Dame Carol Black’s 2021 Home Office review of drug policy – alongside a substantial increase in funding for drug treatment.

Part of the reason for these contradictions is the perceived need to smuggle disparate elements of sensible policy in under the noses of an attention-deficient media perpetually seeking to confect outrage, which only further inhibits a more intelligent public discussion taking root. A similar dynamic is at work elsewhere: for example, Scotland is presently suffering a huge increase in problem heroin use and deaths, and increasingly wishes to move towards greater harm reduction and even outright decriminalisation. However, despite many of its proposed measures also featuring – in some shape or form – in the London government’s recent strategy, it has met continued intransigent resistance from the Home Office.

The exasperated laments of experts are rehearsed on an almost-daily basis: we know what is wrong with existing drug policy and it is, in theory, relatively straightforward to begin fixing it. Indeed, there is a reason why the same pro-legalisation arguments go round in an infinite loop to the chagrin of the perplexed insiders who have a stake in the existing system.

This is because prohibition itself is the ‘world drug problem’ or, as reformers often argue, we do not have a world drug problem; we have a prohibition problem. Nevertheless, what seems to be missing from our domestic conversation is an explanation of why policy remains so disconnected, disjointed, and obdurate. Why is there no cogent, evidence-based plan, grounded in an expert consensus, which integrates different institutions and agencies in a collaborative, progressive, shared approach to the problem? Why is Britain so far behind the global cutting edge of reform?

An obvious explanation would be that this simply reflects ideological party-political divisions: e.g. a Labour Mayor experimenting within his limited domain of influence, and an embattled Met Commissioner playing to a gallery occupied by a distinctly hardline Conservative Home Secretary and frothing press.

Yet this seems too glib: other countries have made progress while dealing with similar divisions, and, in any case, those divisions are overstated anyway. Nationally, Labour has continued to vacillate on drug policy under Starmer: his support for Scotland’s diversion scheme in autumn 2021 was tepid, and he rapidly distanced himself from Khan’s proposals.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect Labour to have developed fully a thought-out policy for what is (see below) viewed as a second-order problem, especially at this point in the electoral cycle. However, it is less defensible that a party led by the former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) who has seen first-hand the damage wrought by existing drug laws – and, indeed, had a front-row seat during New Labour’s complete failure to assuage it when in office – appears to be proceeding on principles that are, at best, only marginally less punitive than, and equally as conflicted as, those of the most right-wing administration in living memory.

This is especially infuriating since Starmer himself has enjoyed a storied career despite, like so many influential people, being able to sidestep questions about the extent of his own experiences with drugs. Nonetheless, I find the simple party-political explanation for policy inertia and ambiguity rather unsatisfying. In fact, it strikes me that there exist deep-seated structural problems inhibiting reform in the UK, which together reproduce the fragmented and inconsistent policy landscape.

Partiality and Power

First of all, drugs are already de facto legal for the majority in Britain. This might seem an odd claim to make, but the fact is that most white, middle-class, non-problematic recreational drug use – which actually comprises the vast majority of illicit drug use – occurs quietly and peacefully in pubs, clubs and parties that turn a blind eye to it, entirely unmolested by the law.

According to the Office of National Statistics, in England and Wales, approximately 9.4% of people (3.2 million) used any illicit substance in the year ending March 2020, rising to 18.7% of young adults (16-24) using cannabis. However, there is very good reason to suspect that this substantially underestimates real-world prevalence, and certainly the intensity of drug use in particular segments of the population.

Yet even with millions of (again, generally non-problematic) users, fewer than 100,000 people are arrested and charged, of which (in the year ending March 2021) 72,362 were dealt with out-of-court (i.e. ‘diverted’) and 21,641 were prosecuted, despite simple possession being their most heinous crime.

Consider that statistic for a moment: out of millions of consumers – many of whom are frequent users, breaking the law constantly – far less than 1% received criminal records for something that well over 99% are systematically getting away with. As just a basic question of equitable criminal justice, this is nothing less than a legal outrage, especially so when we consider that those ensnared by the courts are not, generally, white, middle-class denizens of the leafy suburbs, imbued with connections and social capital (or, indeed, future ministers studying at Oxford).

One of the most powerful arguments against criminalisation is that it is so partial: it viciously target a tiny minority of people – usually poor, rarely white, frequently coerced – who are operating in the most conflictual drug markets, in the most marginalised spaces of our towns and cities which are entirely bereft of meaningful opportunity.

The vast majority of those arrested and prosecuted for selling drugs – I consciously desist from using the loaded term ‘dealers’ – come from those same places, eking out a difficult existence on the urban margins, essentially excluded from mainstream life. There is, then, no justice served by laws that discriminate in such naked fashion (and even appear designed with that very purpose in mind).

Despite shrill announcements designed to generate social media clicks and feed the ravenous stigma machine, the police do not typically waste resources conducting sting operations  on university campuses, in tabloid newsrooms, the City of London or, indeed, the parliamentary estate (something from which many elites have benefitted greatly so cosy is their insulation within the political bubble).

This is despite white people generally being found in possession of drugs to a considerably greater extent than non-whites, even though the latter are stopped and searched disprortionately. This is why Khan’s mooted reforms, hesitant as they may be, matter: diversion is not decriminalisation and it will have little effect in the aggregate; but to those individuals who would otherwise be criminalised, its significance is colossal. It is, as Ant Lehane suggests, ‘a proven solution to a long-standing problem of racial disproportionality in stop and search, and therefore over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system’.

This is the great value of diversion, and the reason why so many countries are rapidly going further by fully decriminalising possession. It prevents (some) police officers using a spurious pretext – e.g. ‘the smell’ of cannabis – to lazily racially profile, aggressively brutalise and transgress the rights of citizens trying to go about their business peacefully rather than engaging in painstaking evidence-gathering and serious community policing.

Even Black police officers themselves, prominent politicians and celebrated Olympians are not immune from this appalling treatment which simply does not afflict white people, and, in spite of directives to cease using the supposed scent of drugs as a rationale for stop-and-search, it still seems to be occurring right up to the moment I filed this piece.

Diversion, at a bare minimum, also makes considerably more sense than going the other way: i.e. actually delivering the mooted mass expansion of enforcement measures for everyone, including the students featured in recent pronouncements. This would – and could – never happen. However, weirdly, it would also be more ‘just’ – if that is the right word – ensnaring the Michael Goves of this world too, but it would also be unconscionably expensive and give us a prison population of millions.

Entire generations of young people would suffer the life-destroying consequences of criminalisation that, at present, affect twenty thousand or so of their most unfortunate counterparts each year. The very fact that achieving this strange form of equitable justice would require such a staggering misallocation of resources and destruction of life chances – to solve the perceived harm of individuals exercising their liberty to consume substances which bring them joy and have discernible therapeutic benefits – is so fantastical demonstrates clearly the intrinsic illogic of existing, discriminatory, approaches to enforcement. It would also only lead to greater harm, especially in terms of those with genuinely problematic use avoiding seeking help.

Moreover, the backlash from the middle classes would be immediate and fierce, of which the reaction to the Met’s relatively modest foray into Shoreditch offered a small taste. Not only does this sojourn appear a wasteful curiosity – just fifteen people were searched and one person, a woman, was arrested, and for possession of a Class A substancewhich was likely of no danger to anyone – it seems especially bizarre and indulgent given that the major ‘drug problem’ currently facing young people navigating the night-time economy is a spiking epidemic.

The extent of this problem is a matter of much debate, but, anecdotally, almost every student that has returned to campus since the acute lockdown phase of the pandemic knows someone to whom this has happened first-hand. We may not have clear toxicological evidence of it, but something very creepy appears to be going on in Covid clubland – part of what the commentator Matthew d’Ancona calls the ‘huge psychic credit card bill landing unexpectedly on the nation’s doormat’ – and students are absolutely terrified. So, within this grim context, the last thing they need after two years of isolation and stunted social interaction, rampant coronavirus infections and disrupted teaching, amidst a burgeoning mental health crisis, is to be harassed by the police for possession of the party drugs they use to relax and have fun.

Quite apart from this, we all know that, beyond the occasional random (and, again, therefore inherently inequitable) sting operation – which can destroy the lives of whoever is unlucky enough to be caught up in it at that one moment in time – across-the-board enforcement is both impossible and counter-productive anyway. It is little more than a hollow void of bellicosity masquerading as policy.

Underpinning all of these inequities is the fact that there is no easy distinction to be made between licit and illicit drugs. This is, and has always been, an artificial divide designed not only to provide the instruments by which the poor and marginalised can be policed, but also to privilege the expertise of the medical profession and thereby cement its authority.

Perhaps this intuitively makes sense today, given the advancements and complexity of modern medicine, but it founders somewhat if we consider that, historically, quackery has shaped drug prescribing and proscribing as much as science, and the political economy generated by the false distinction between ‘narcotics’ and ‘medicines’ – like so many other drug-related binaries – has generated its own patterns of vested interest, asymmetries of power, and technologies of abuse.

Taking the contemporary US as an example, nominally illegal heroin use can be perfectly safe yet punished brutally while much opiate addiction is driven by the country’s formally legal yet dystopian corporate medical-industrial complex (which itself has deep roots in the exploitative history of the opium wars).

It bears repeating that most drug use is not simply non-problematic, but young (and not-so-young) people often have a fantastic timedoing it, engaging in all manner of primal communion with their friends, achieving levels of mind expansion, pleasure and psychosocial wellbeing that might not otherwise be possible. Why else would they do it, were it not enjoyable? This is a critical element of the drug debate that is almost entirely absent from public discussion, other than in sensationalist form.

Political Rewards

Second, politicians still believe – or implicitly assume – that being ‘hard on drugs’ is electorally popular (or, at least, electorally expedient for them as individuals). Of course, this is a sign of weakness, not strength: there is nothing ‘hard’ about abrogating the state’s regulatory responsibility to render markets safe for the people that operate in them, or to render products safe for those than consume them, as is the case with other licit (and frequently more dangerous or addictive) substances.

Drug prohibition, in any case, has never been about safety: it was conceived as a convenient, and intrinsically racist, way of stigmatising, othering and controlling marginalised populations that brought with it a range of novel tools for doing so – tools which were sharpened in even-more insidious ways during the intensification of the War on Drugs – that powerful elites remain loth to give up.

So, even though public opinion in Britain has long since shifted against the hardest edges of the war, and clear majorities exist for riding the wave of, especially, cannabis legalisation, this does not necessarily map neatly onto the electoral coalitions that matter. By the same token, Corbyn and McDonnell’s policy platform was also extremely popular, but electorally unsuccessful (even in 2017 when, despite almost matching the Conservatives in vote share, the votes piled up in the wrong places).

The right has been adept at exploiting this for decades: it is unified, it integrates rather than fragments when facing a challenge (the Conservative and Unionist Party today is, in effect, now the UKIP and Brexit Party), and, despite its support being shallow in many places, it is also dispersed widely, meaning it is has proven successful at winning just enough votes in sufficient numbers of seats to take power under first-past-the-post.

These dynamics inevitably shape the possibilities for drug law reform: the young and liberal are disprortionately concentrated in fewer urban constituencies – ironically those that bear the real brunt of the drug war while also being hotbeds of opposition to it – whereas the old and illiberal tend to be dispersed across more numerous suburban, small town and rural places.

This will surely change alongside the demographic shifts that spell long-term trouble for enduring Conservative hegemony, but this may also occur at a glacial pace: even if clear majorities emerged for wider processes of legalisation, that would not necessarily translate to efficacious political pressure for now. Indeed, despite widespread hunger for change, and brilliant activism on the part of reformers – including serious, thoughtful, evidence-based proposals for getting Britain to the cutting-edge of reform – there is precious little organised pressure from the public at large.

For now, we remain beholden to a growing cohort of ageing people in an ageing society who were raised on a steady diet of drug war propaganda, whose preferences and prejudices still swing elections and referenda, and who are now dangerously untethered and insulated from the consequences of the decisions which they inflict on, and which overwhelmingly affect, the young.

This is exacerbated by the fact that our increasingly proletarianised urban youth vote less frequently than older provincial rentiers, something that has dramatically disadvantaged them, and will only worsen as the government further criminalises protest and restricts democratic participation. The intolerance of older people towards drugs may be implicit rather than explicit, stemming from a lack of experience and comprehension rather than overt hostility.

But it provides cover for useful idiots to build parliamentary careers by propounding nonsense, in turn helping to relentlessly wind the vice-like grip of prohibition that little bit tighter by offering a foil for a disingenuously outraged media – in whose offices drug use has always been rife – to sell newspapers and generate clicks by engaging in proxy campaigns and moral panics against those who dare to challenge the bigoted common sense with evidence and reasoning.

Others, whatever their relationship with illicit substances, are not greatly incentivised to agitate for change, because they are individually unaffected: i.e. they do not use drugs, do not care, or do use them clandestinely and free from criminal sanction. At the bottom of this ghastly pyramid scheme – and, at best, forgotten, at worst stigmatised and exoticised – are the bodies of the powerless people discarded into our prisons which provide the fuel to keep the wheels of this bleak system turning.

For politicians, whether rightly or wrongly, a clear perception exists that they have little to gain – and potentially much to lose – from making this their ‘number one’ campaigning issue. Britain has a discomfiting history of mocking or hounding those in the public eye who dare to place their heads above the parapet, which perhaps explains why, remarkably, when they do not take the cowardly default option of complete denial, politicians seem to be the only people on earth for whom prior drug use was always consistently disappointing, unquestionably a stupid, regrettable mistake, and not something they ever continued doing after the distant past.

That is, of course, until they depart office, renounce their ministerial ambitions, or leave parliament, whereupon they become born-again legalisers at the very moment they are wholly unable to do anything about it. Perhaps it is these unusual – even unique – characteristics that also attract so many psychopaths to the world of professional politics. They also render the cocaine tracesrecently discovered in the toilets near to Boris Johnson’s office quite the mystery: for if our serving politicos all hate narcotics, how on earth did they get there?

From Labour’s backtracking on cannabis reclassification in 2009 amid media hysterics to Theresa May’s Psychoactive Substances Act which essentially catalysed the disastrous ‘spice’ epidemic, the unwillingness of senior politicians to engage in, let alone lead, a serious, evidence-based discussion that chimes with the lived experience of vast numbers of people repeatedly reproduces terrible drug policy by reinforcing failed prohibitionist norms.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that those MPs who have used (or, rather, do use) drugs are the most reticent: they have never faced, and surely wish not to face, the inequities of a criminal justice system that they continue to foist on others. Maybe, in line with my earlier point, this is actually the purpose of criminalising (some) drug users: if policy is intrinsically designed to facilitate the harassment, stigmatisation and marginalisation of specific groups of voiceless and powerless people, then in these terms it is working well, and there is little political mileage in spending political capital defending them.

On the one hand, doing so risks opprobrium from our frenzied hydra-headed media. On the other, for those politicians who do undertake serious community work with vulnerable groups, it risks being ignored. In either case, the waves of prohibitionist received wisdom continue crashing in.

This is especially so given the selection mechanisms facing aspirant MPs. It is easy for nascent political careers to follow the path of least resistance on an issue which is not a leadership priority and on which an unconventional stance could invite unwarranted attention. But this only makes it more compelling that progressive forces rise to the challenge: indeed, what is the point of leftist politics, in particular, if it is unwilling to take ownership of contentious reform agendas? For a national Labour Party with a power base rooted in the major cities that seeks to represent modern Britain, the conservatism – even cowardice – of its leadership on this issue is unforgivable.

The Labour Campaign Group for Drug Policy Reform’s report in late 2020 advocated a series of (relatively mild) policy shifts that were, in tandem with Sadiq Khan’s proposed experiment – and, again, government policy as announced in From Harm to Hope – focused on diversion schemes rather than full decriminalisation. This group counts just fifteen MPs amongst its supporters, a depressingly small number, particularly given that the vast majority of parliamentarians have long privately admitted that UK drug policy has totally failed.

Ironically, Starmer’s centrists, like in so many other policy areas where they appear to be drawing misconceived lessons from the Blair era, also risk being outflanked – from the ostensible left – by a Johnsonite party whose campaign group recently published its own report. It is unlikely, but not unthinkable, that, spying an opportunity to develop new sectors and keep up with developments elsewhere, the government could rapidly reconfigure its drug policy in ways that make Labour appear further behind a curve that it is squinting to see in the distance. Indeed, it has already done this – rhetorically, if not substantively – with the ‘levelling up’ agenda, NHS spending, public investment, industrial strategy and tax policy.

Yet for individual Tories, the pressure to conform is probably even greater than it is for those on the left and centre-left. This is a shame, and, in certain respects, quite contradictory: the vocal hyper-libertarianism of many backbenchers should be fertile ground for individualistic, free-market conceptions of drug policy – the kind that have appeared regularly in the pages of The Economist for at least two decades and in the missives of an Adam Smith Institute which describes British drug policy as ‘an embarrassment’ – not least since prohibition fails the most basic test of liberty by criminalising users for something that they do to themselves and which harms no other person.

It is not just that the state should not overreach here, it is that, for liberals – let alone libertarians – it does not even have the legitimate right to do so. I find it genuinely puzzling – not to mention intellectual fraudulent – that supposed defenders of liberty work themselves into apoplexy when the state seeks to enforce coronavirus restrictions designed to protect the freedom of people to avoid infection, but remain silent when the state seeks to enforce restrictions on the substances individuals consume in private and which has no bearing on the liberty of others.

However, cerebral consistency is not the hallmark of contemporary conservatism, to the extent that is arguably not even really conservative: on a range of issues, all Tories, however nominally moderate they might be, have been forced hard-rightwards in recent years, taking up ever more indefensible positions. These two phenomena are inextricably linked: a revolutionary era demands that successful revolutionaries are able to deny reality and force it to bend to dogma, rather than the inverse. Just as this is the case with Brexit and its consequences, so it is with drug policy.

The great paradox of our time, then, is that an extremely successful period in rightist hegemony has occurred alongside a steep decline in both its intellectual basis – what the historian Robert Saunders calls ‘the closing of the Conservative mind’ – and the quality of parliamentarians available to the Tory party for government.

In large measure, this is due to selection pressures: squeezed on one side by Farageism, and, on the other, by a fragmented, ageing and increasingly reactionary membership scattered thinly outside of our most progressive, densely populated spaces, it is a constitutional scandal that these members, who are utterly unrepresentative of the country at large, play such an outsize role in selecting MPs, including – as is potentially about to happen again imminently – the Prime Minister. Or, as the economist Chris Dillow less charitably puts it: ‘one can become a Tory candidate [only] by enthusing weirdos’. So, from the perspective of a prospective MP, this narrow retrograde constituency matters far more than the voting public, and it is incumbent on them to cleave to regressive positions, especially on drugs, which, as noted, is not a first-order concern for any ambitious political animal.

Thorny Problems

Third, reform is hard. It involves swimming against a tide over which individual MPs – whatever their advocacy and activism – have little control and on which rational, evidence-based argument founders. All manner of ossified institutions and policies can survive for generations despite mounting evidence of their failure, ineffectiveness or counter-productive consequences.

Politicians themselves are trapped, because, to use the language of economics, they are policy-takers rather than policy-makers. This is, moreover, a vicious circle: the tide will plausibly only turn when sufficient numbers of them bring their collective power to bear on the issue; yet the incentives against them collectively seeking to do this, particularly in the absence of a leader engaging in the sustained policy entrepreneurship required to permit others to break cover, appear too strong to make it happen.

A further paradox is that decriminalisation – if not necessarily legalisation – is theoretically extremely easy: with the stroke of a pen, any government could simply choose not to enforce (or even repeal) existing drug laws, and cease criminalising users. As we know, and as I’ve suggested above, the payoffs from this would be enormous in terms of avoiding the dramatic harms associated with pushing (some) drug users into a criminal justice and penal system that, by design, ‘punishes the poor’.

However, it is also practically extremely difficult: in the absence of sufficient critical mass, where is the political propulsion for substantive decriminalisation – let alone more radical reform – coming from? In the US, constitutional ballot initiatives were crucial in focusing the efforts of activists and overcoming inertia, specifically because they operated in a handful of trailblazing states independently of ossified parties, resistant politicians and, crucially, the federal government.

However cannabis remains (for now) federally prohibited, and, until that changes, continues to rest on executive privilege – i.e. a political decision not to enforce federal antidrug law in legalising states – that, in theory, could be withdrawn at any moment. In Uruguay and Jamaica – the latter being the case with which I am personally most familiar – entrepreneurial leaders were able to drive radical policy change because visionary individuals can nimbly shape policy in smaller countries, but this was only possible because a conjunctural opportunity presented itself that may have been short-lived.

In Portugal, decriminalisation has been very successful, but it is only one part of a model with multiple pillars: the fact that no other country has adopted it wholesale for twenty years demonstrates how tricky building the requisite political capital and coalition for both widespread reform and massive investment in services can be, especially in the absence of broad consensus.

Britain presently has neither the constitutional mechanisms, entrepreneurial leadership, nor appetite for the massive social investment required to make substantive decriminalisation a reality (it also does not seem to find itself at a conducive conjunctural moment for overcoming these barriers).

Plus, this is, to reiterate, only decriminalisation: it barely needs saying that contemplating the construction of the enormous regulatory architecture required for a legalised recreational industry – as desirable as this might be – is inordinately more daunting, especially since it still places states in breach of their prohibitionist commitments under the UN drug control treaties.

This international constraint on change is barely ever discussed in what is a distinctly parochial domestic debate (echoing, of course, other debates that carry on as if Britain exists in a continental and global vacuum impervious to the sovereign preferences and influence of other actors and institutions, or, indeed, the stark strategic dilemmas with which it is presently faced). This is unfortunate, since international reform is further inhibited by the absence of consensus and ‘like-minded’ coalitions.

It is also something on which a major – albeit waning – diplomatic power like Britain could, with a bit vision and gumption, adopt a leadership position in order to ameliorate the disaster of the drug war globally while harnessing those shifts to facilitate and anchor more legitimate national-level reform. This is a crucial agenda: all legalising states are going to have to confront this issue at some point if a fragmented multilateral drug control regimeis going to be recast and survive.

So, contemplating meaningful reform is daunting, even overwhelming. From the perspective of busy politicians and governments, it is probably easier to swim with the tide and effectively outsource – for this is the inevitable effect of their inaction – the regulation of drug markets to criminals who enforce order with violence rather than contracts. And who are the criminals to argue?

The system, as presently constituted, works well for traffickers: they enjoy mega-profits because of the excess rents generated by prohibition and its effect on sustaining high prices for drugs, and they also enjoy a substantial degree of control over those exploited at the bottom end of the supply chain who are both deeply dependent on them and most at risk from an aggressively punitive and deeply discriminatory criminal justice system to which they cannot turn. Yet the vested interests with a stake in the current system run much deeper, driving prohibition from its very inception.

Britain’s disfigured political economy of drugs is presently well-served by the status quo: Conservative MPs with interests in medical cannabis are gifted a closed market, with the criminalisation of the wider recreational market acting effectively as a trade barrier to their competitors ‘going straight’ and becoming ‘legit’. As we continue to arrest and prosecute (some of) those who navigate this perilous terrain, London is actively positioning itself as a financial hub for new cannabis businesses.

For the time being, though, and unlike in the US – where emergent patterns of corporate power have shifted to sustain, rather than inhibit, reform trajectories – Britain does not have a wider industrial cannabis base that can undertake the necessary lobbying to do the same thing. This may be inexorably, albeit still slowly, coming. But, even if so, it is not a panacea. New vested interests are surely necessary to support policy development, but they will also capture the gains while seeking to build fences that keep out competitors and influence the development of a licit industry in its own malign ways.

The country’s troubled relationship with both gambling and alcohol, and the corporate interests extracting value from them, represent cautionary tales. Nonetheless, one day we will see knighthoods for rich, white, well-connected and capitalised elites who build cannabis empires with dizzying stock market valuations. They will not be called dealers, but dispensers, their dispensaries having invaded the corners of newly gentrified streets from which the poor, imprisoned cannabis seller has been eradicated.

The same journalists and politicians who disparage cannabis users today will publish breathless reportage extolling the plant’s therapeutic benefits and taking substantial donations from those that have become rich on the backs of those languishing in the drug war’s gulags, the latter voicelessly erased from an industry they built under prohibition but which will be stolen from them.

Dismantling Prohibition

The fundamental problem with prohibitionist policy in Britain, then, is that it exists at all. It is not merely a failed response to our national variant of the world drug problem; it is the problem.

Drug warriors might counter that its failures are of composition, not conception, and can consequently be ameliorated with better antidrug policy. However, it is hard to sustain this claim given the contrasting evidence that mounts up daily, and, crucially, the fact that the prosecution of the war is monstrously inequitable, horrifyingly disproportionate and viciously prejudiced (with its brutal injustices cutting along raced and classed lines).

How, in fact, could it be any other way? Were it not, and all users faced the same criminal treatment, it would be outlandishly expensive to deliver – the cost counted in unimaginable billions of pounds and millions of wasted lives – and it would collapse quickly under the weight of its own contradictions. It is, therefore, completely illegitimate in its present form.

Either every user – including those who have consumed narcotics in the past – should be criminalised, or nobody should, and the fact that no politician even half-seriously proposes building the Orwellian architecture required to achieve the incarceration of millions, demonstrates that the policy is designed not to solve any meaningful drug problem but to brutalise, discipline and penalise a very small, very marginalised, section of the population. These glaring inequities corrode the legitimacy, and therefore stability, of our legal and criminal justice systems: a clear and present constitutional and democratic danger.

It is analogous in many ways to the Met’s ongoing refusal to investigate continued breaches of lockdown rules by the powerful during the pandemic – including numerous parties within Downing St itself – while the courts were dishing out £10,000 fines for others doing the same thing and the police were flying drones over the Peak District to harass walkers.

It is also why diversion matters: such an approach remains little more than a tentative starting point on the road to redemption, but it is not pointless. Our very inequality before the law is the precise reason why everyone – whoever they are, wherever they live – deserves the equal right to not be ensnared by it. The more we expand this option, the fewer and fewer lives will be ruined by criminalisation.

So, the real benefit of Khan’s reforms is that the very people who are likely to experience the unequal and violent application of our antiquated drug laws are the very poor, urban, non-white, marginalised people who already bear the brunt of prohibition in a way that others outside the urban margins and class spaces they are compelled to inhabit do not. But diversion itself can only ever be a beginning, since it too is based on problematic principles: i.e. that all drug users are a problem to be solved, which they are not, just like most drinkers and gamblers are not.

As Tessie Castillo notes, drug policy, at root, is not about drugs: it is, rather, a proxy for wider questions about poverty and inequality, housing power, access to resources, health, education and criminal justice which, when viewed through this prism ‘creates a debate that merely ping-pongs between calls for more rehab and calls for more prison’.

This is evidently ludicrous: nobody is compelled to take a re-education course because they drink coffee in moderation: why should cannabis (or cocaine, or heroin) consumers be any different? Why are wine drinkers fêted as connoisseurs, but expert cannabis smokers are not? In short, unless they fall into the small group who suffer addiction problems – and who require, and should be given, as much help as possible – they simply need to be left alone to experience their gloriously technicolour lives in the same way as the majority without fearing the dark clouds of criminalisation to which most people never have to give a second thought.

So, we need both depoliticisation and better policy. These two things go hand in hand. Dialling down the political temperature implies a recognition that drug use is essentially an uncontroversial personal matter in which the law and criminal justice system should have little role in beyond ensuring that it occurs in as safe a fashion as possible. It is remarkable, with a century of accumulated evidence that prohibition does not work, we still refuse to learn this lesson and its foundational myths still find a receptive audience.

It is beyond dispute that a ‘drug-free world’ is an impossible (and, in my view, undesirable) goal, and that the harms conventionally attributed to ‘drugs’ – which do not, and cannot, of themselves, cause anything in a socio-politico-legal sense, because they are not actors imbued with intention – are attributable to prohibition.

But I would go further. The corollary of the argument that prohibition, rather than the substances themselves, represents the real problem, is that we need desperately to stop thinking of drug prohibition as the established norm, and reform as the exception. The opposite is, in fact, the case: the former is a relatively recent, deeply contested development, rooted in time and space, which has always aroused opposition; the latter is only novel in the sense that it is necessary because of the alien imposition of global prohibitionism over the past century.

If we take a longer view, historically these substances have always been tolerated in many parts of the world, and remain so, rubbing up uncomfortably against the perverted illogic of prohibition: they have always been enmeshed in a given society’s web of rules, norms and customs, facilitating sacramental as well as medicinal and psychotropic purposes (arguably, these things are all the same). It is, put simply, the impulse of criminalising those who seek to experience what generations before them have freely experienced which is the aberration.

Once we start conceiving of the issue in this way, and finding methods to communicate it to the sceptical, the more easily our mission of generating reform – or, as I would suggest, reverting to normality in which drug markets are carefully regulated by public authority rather than criminal muscle – might be.

By implication, better policy entails moving rapidly towards a post-prohibition approach that dismantles the criminal narcoeconomy and with it the rotten ‘carceral archipelago’ that has become so central to processes of racial ordering and capitalist accumulation in our period of crisis, and in which so many humans have become interned.

This can only happen alongside – and because of – the construction of a properly regulated licit industry for presently-banned substances, with serious investments in resolving the structural inequalities that drive addiction problems amongst a fraction of problem users. For those of us in academia, we also need – and have a duty to ensure – better research that relentlessly puts drug users and their experiences at the very centre of our work as subjects, not objects.

More broadly, we need a better language to engage wider inexpert publics. I often think notions of ‘legalisation’ are themselves problematic when translated for general consumption: a society raised on a diet of drug war propaganda and sensationalism, in which that war is normalised rather than exceptionalised, implicitly assumes this means a free-for-all, when it is the precise opposite.

What we have now is a Wild West in which anyone – child or adult – can access any drug laced with any adulterant without even a modicum of restrictions. So, drug warriors are the ones making it easy for children to consume narcotics, and perpetuating the criminal economy that they regularly decry, because they are the ones preventing it from coming above ground where it can be properly regulated. We need to develop new frames and arguments to capture this that work with the grain of everyday understanding rather than against it.

Tobacco seems to me the obvious comparator: nobody would seriously advocate reducing or controlling use by arresting and imprisoning smokers – who presently number 6.9 million British citizens – so why do we accept this for other substances? In fact, we have drastically reduced smoking in this country by resorting to measures such as education programmes, packaging requirements, age restrictions and so on, which are impossible to undertake with cannabis or cocaine as long as they are traded in the black market and the state has abrogated its responsibility to pull its regulatory levers.

I do not know exactly what language we should be using, but emphasising this – the fact that prohibition is, at root, about an absence of regulation, and it is an anomaly both in historical terms and when compared to how we deal with other controlled substances, chemicals and products – and that the legalisers are the regulators who would end this disastrous state of affairs, seems as good a place to start as any.

Where is Labour?

As a supposedly progressive party seeking the public’s assent to govern and, presumably, change Britain for the better, Labour’s drug policy platform necessarily invites scrutiny. This is a straightforward task because it is, frankly, abysmal. As Volteface has recently argued, if Starmer’s pronouncements on ‘security, prosperity and respect’ are to mean anything other than vacuous focus-grouped slogans designed to insult the intelligence of mythologised provincial voters, drug users (and sellers) must be included in the conversation. A good start would be to bravely come clean on whether he has, himself, previously used drugs. There can only be one answer: yes or no. If it is the latter, why not just say so?

If it is the former, he is the unmerited beneficiary of an indefensible system that discriminates against his fellow citizens based on their race, class and misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is, therefore, morally incumbent on him to lead a debate about dismantling this system, and, in so doing, ensuring that the that the 21,641 people criminalised for the very same activity are able enjoy the same access to justice – or, rather, protection from injustice – that no fewer than 3.18 million people enjoy every year by default because their drug use will never be investigated by the law.

Sadly, though, the portents are not great: just this week, Starmer continued to wrongly attribute the damage he saw during his time as DPP to ‘drugs’ rather than a prohibition which only exacerbates harm and does nothing to solve it, and, on that basis, offered a breathtakingly disingenuous defence of an inequitable system that produces so much misery.

Starmer is evidently a clever man, so the only possible explanation for this level of intellectual dishonesty is a perceived need to keep playing to the tabloid gallery in the ongoing game of electoral triangulation and trimming. Again, this draws the wrong lessons from the Blair era: whatever anyone thinks of New Labour, they entered government in 1997 with a searing critique of the preceding 18 years, and an extremely well-developed policy agenda to deal with it.

If the leader of an allegedly progressive party that has been out of office for four elections is not in favour of, say, nationalising utilities when the energy market has abjectly failed, acknowledging the worst effects of Brexit when businesses are on their knees, nor even slightly softening the sharp edges of a disastrous drug war that discriminates against (some) working-class Britons, what exactly is his critique of the past 12 years, how does his party differ to the Tories, and, crucially, why is he seeking office?

The fact that the answer to this question is so opaque – i.e. that a purportedly reformist opposition riding high in the polls is largely bereft of either meaningful ideas for reform or a persuasive analysis of what is actually wrong on which they might be anchored – tells us something very troubling about our politics.

Could it be that it is this very inscrutability and demonstrable unwillingness to frighten any horses – let alone the unicorns that trample pervasively all over our national narco-conversation – that actually explains why Labour seems to be doing so well under Starmer? Either way, this all unfortunately represents yet another abject lesson in why British drug policy is likely to remain its doom loop, unperturbed by evidence or rationality, for some time to come.


Dr Matt Bishop is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a popular course on Narcopolitics and is presently writing a book on the subject. He tweets at @MatthewLBishop


Featured image: https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/p/policy.html

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