“The illegal drugs market has long existed but has never caused greater harm to society than now.” That is the dark conclusion that has come out of the release of a major independent review of illegal drug use and supply in the UK. In it, author Dame Carol Black points to a number of disturbing trends in the UK’s drug market, namely that supply has increased, drugs are becoming more available, purity is rising, and  young people are increasingly becoming involved in the drugs market. The fact that this has all happened whilst policing has been cut and there have been significant cuts to drug treatment, has led to what Dame Black has called a ‘perfect storm’.

It is undoubtable that off the back of this review, tackling the illicit drugs market will become a priority for this government. However, the government should heed Dame Black’s warning that “even if [all enforcement] organisations were sufficiently resourced it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in drug supply, given the resilience and flexibility of illicit drug markets.” It would appear that Home Secretary Priti Patel’s promise of 20,000 extra police forces will do little to tackle drug supply.  

So what would work? 

To answer this, we must turn to the unsung heroes of alcohol and tobacco policy. Not once did Black mention the illicit alcohol and tobacco market in her review and that’s because this is an area where governments have actually done quite well.

By providing a legal source of use whilst policing illicit supply, the UK has enjoyed a small alcohol and tobacco market and comprehensive strategies put in place in the early 2000’s saw a further reduction in its size. 

“By working with Border Force, other enforcement agencies and the spirits industry, we have reduced the spirits illicit market from a height of 16% in 2000-01 to 5% in 2013-14.” The HMRC Alcohol Strategy

“The government has had a comprehensive strategy to tackle illicit tobacco since 2000. This has been highly effective in reducing the illicit cigarette trade from 22% (in 2000 to 2001) to 10% today, and from 61% to 35% for hand-rolling tobacco. In the same period the revenue lost has reduced from £3.4 billion to £2.1 billion per annum.” Outputs for Tackling Tobacco Smuggling

And because most people buy tobacco and alcohol through legal routes, this means that the government has been able to put in place policies that improve public health. Graduated taxation and restrictions on underage purchasing could not have been implemented if alcohol and tobacco were mainly bought on the illicit market. 

If our aim is to take power and wealth away from criminal gangs, we must replicate the success of the regulation model with cannabis- the UK’s largest drug market. 

Black’s report acknowledges that a “large number of Organised Crime Groups [are] involved in the growth, importation and distribution of cannabis in the UK” and references the growing number of Vietnamese nationals who are trafficked to work on cannabis farms and young people who have been pulled into country lines to pay off cannabis debts. Cannabis is the most commonly used drug amongst young people, and research by Volteface has shown that 25% are exposed to drug adverts on social media. Most of what they see is cannabis. By effectively tackling the illicit cannabis market, we could reduce its associated violence and exploitation, regulate the products and restrict underage use. 

In Canada, Uruguay and 11 US states, cannabis markets have been regulated and there has been a gradual transfer of cannabis users from the illicit to the legal market. According to Stats Canada, one year after the market was regulated, the rate of cannabis consumption for 15-17 year olds fell from 19.8% to 10.4%. 

With countries around the world trialling this approach, we should look to the emerging evidence but also turn to what we already know, which is that regulation works. Our current approach to cannabis only benefits the dealers who will continue to profit until we take control of this market. 

Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface. Tweets @Liz_McCll

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