The government last week released their official response to Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review of Drugs parts one and two, a disappointing culmination of the insightful work of Dame Black on the matter since February 2019.
The response by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Sponsor Minister for Combating Drug Misuse Kit Malthouse, addresses Dame Black’s key recommendations and outlines their own commitments to combat the harms associated with the misuse of drugs.
Dame Black’s report has suffered a number of delays, and there is a sense that this report is not something that the government wants to shine a light on, despite the report being commissioned by recently reinstated Health Secretary Javid. It was slipped out, on short notice, the day after a major England football game.
The central premise of the response is one of enforcement, dominating the response’s discussion of drug-related harm. The response fails to see the failures of policing the War on Drugs, and commits to the very same promises established in 1971. The rationale is rooted in the tired “tough on crime, tough on drugs” stance that has previously helped garner votes from the “Law and Order” conservatives.
The issue is that this is unlikely to chime quite so strongly with the Tory voter base. With drug deaths at unprecedented levels, polling indicates that there is a strong public clamour for a new approach. Furthermore, the response has frustrated experts in the sector, and is at odds with Dame Black’s claim that “we cannot police our way out of this.”
The response cites statistics indicating the success of police interventions in county lines operations, including that enforcement has “closed down more than 1,100 lines” and “safeguarded over 1,900 vulnerable people”. These figures, while indicative of success, do little to estimate the actual impact on Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) deemed “resilien[t] and flexib[le]” by Dame Black in Phase One of her Independent Review; These groups are able to exist because of their capacity to evolve and adapt alongside police intervention. Dame Black found that there was no compelling evidence to suggest these enforcement operations were able to facilitate a meaningful and “sustained reduction in drug supply.”
Beyond the capacity of these operations to reduce drug supply, the issue of safeguarding vulnerable and young people involved in the drug trade – particularly through county lines – is naturally pressing and must be readdressed with a fresh approach that protects the vulnerable, not criminalises them. While the response effectively spotlights the issue, it fails to understand the areas of concern that would most effectively alleviate the disproportionate and dangerous tolls of drug-related harm on young and vulnerable people.
The government must commit to investing money into social welfare, healthcare, and education, while attempting to divert as many as possible away from the criminal justice system and towards the greatest chance of reintegration and, if applicable, rehabilitation. No such commitments were made in the government’s response.
The government’s proposed continued dependency on the criminal justice system as a means of addressing drug-related harm is problematic in several ways.
Firstly, following the evidence is always the most salient course of action for policy makers. There are few Acts that have been as much of an unmitigated disaster as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Drug usage has risen exponentially, drug deaths have spiralled out of control and the market is still dominated by organised criminal gangs. The policy solutions put forward in the response have been trialled, and have all failed catastrophically – the only sensible way forward is to implement a raft of measures to save lives, reduce harm and protect citizens.
Although not the central concern, there is an economic conversation to be had. We need only look to the US as a case study in what should be avoided when policing drug use. There are 2.12 million people incarcerated across the US (one-in-five for drug-related offences) and rates of recidivism are the third highest in the world, the precedent set by the US’s policing of the War on Drugs is clearly not one to be emulated.
Analysis of Metropolitan Police Service panel data from 2004–14 by the UK College of Policing found an “inconsistent, weak” and “close to zero” association between rates of stop and search and a drop in drug-related crime.
Greater dependence on the criminal justice system to attempt to resolve drug related harm is also problematic in its ability to compromise the effective functioning of courts and prisons in the UK. With almost two-thirds of UK prisons currently at their capacity, any further overburdening of courts and prisons could result in dangerous implications for the wellbeing, rehabilitation, and reoffending rates of offending populations.
The government’s response also commits to “an increase in the use of drug testing on arrest in a number of police forces across England and Wales, so those involved in crime, including misusing drugs, are identified and dealt with appropriately.” This is a misguided and inappropriate proposition that flouts both Dame Black’s recommendations and the existing evidence-base.
The response also fails to consider the devastating findings of reports such as the Bromley Briefings, which alarmingly found that “more than one in 10 adult men (14%) and women (12%) surveyed by inspectors reported that they had developed a problem with illicit drugs since they had arrived at prison.” Prison sentences not only fail to reduce drug use and drug-related harm – primary aims of both Dame Black and the government’s response – but indeed actively aggravate them.
The response focuses on the most damaging drugs, but neglects that many – in fact the vast majority of people who use drugs – do so in a non-problematic way that does not cause significant harm to themselves or others.
The response cites its primary goal in regards to recreational drug use as reducing its prevalence in the UK. It classifies the type of use as “criminal and anti-social”, “support[ive of] a dangerous and exploitative market”, and recommends harsher consequences to deter use and shift behaviour away from normalisation.
The value of harsher criminalisation of drugs for deterrence has been analysed in myriad studies, typically understood in terms of both ‘specific’ (the capacity of a deterrent to dissuade a specific individual from committing an unfavourable act), and ‘general’ (on the public at large) deterrent capacity. On every level, there is a virtually negligible deterrent effect of increases in the severity of punishment for drug use, as supported by studies at the University of Florida, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, University of North Carolina, and many more. The certainty of punishment is considered as having a greater deterrent effect, but with around one in 11 adults in the UK having admitted to illicit drug use in the past year, the prospect of punishing each drug user is not only unfeasible, but would in fact remove Prime Minister Boris Johnson and many of his senior ministers from their posts.
The existing uncertainty in punishment also leaves those who are disproportionately represented by the criminal justice system due to prohibition, such as people from black and ethnic minorities. The cohort of young black men, when policed on a discretionary basis, are stopped and searched nine times more than their white peers.
Further, the commitment to further criminalisation of recreational drug users as a tool of net widening will have deleterious psychological and psychosocial consequences for groups who weren’t otherwise engaged with the criminal justice system, especially young people who may use drugs infrequently and recreationally more than their older counterparts.
The government’s response does not shy away from engaging with Dame Black’s reflections on the dangers of the illegal drug market, and sets “tough enforcement” as the first of its three key priorities for the national drugs strategy to be published later this year. It pins the blame of this thriving market on individual recreational drug users, and not the government’s own failure to understand that policing street dealers helps to create dangerous monopolies, which achieve no meaningful change to the nature of the market, according to Neil Woods in his recent interview for Insider.
The response dually condemns drug users and laments the harm they incur, neglecting the impactful potential of policy to directly mitigate these harms through sanctioning and supporting widespread drug checking services as recommended by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons. Organisations offering drug checking services are made to operate under murky legal bases permitted by local constables and not national policy, despite their proven success abroad and within the UK at influencing behaviour of the prospective drug users, reducing harm and avoiding drug-related deaths.
Ultimately, the response, not unlike Dame Carol Black’s own Phase Two review, fundamentally missteps in the issue of recreational drug use. Both fail to officially recommend or commit to an expansion of drug checking, and misunderstand the reasons for and nature of recreational drug users’ consumption. Rates of illicit ‘recreational’ drug use are unlikely to dramatically change in coming years, regardless of (and perhaps made worse by) the government’s new commitment to developing “tougher and more meaningful consequences”. What can, and indeed should change, is the way we treat recreational drug users.
Following Dame Black’s assessment of treatment and recovery services in the UK as “not fit for purpose, and urgently need[ing] reform” due to their crippling underfunding and stretched resources, the response’s commitment, to “developing a high-quality drug treatment and recovery system, fit for an advanced democracy that is determined to turn the tide on drug related deaths and reduce drug harms” is a far more optimistic outcome.
The response promises more funding via Project ADDER (addiction, disruption, diversion, enforcement and recovery) on top of the £148 million announced in January to “cut crime and protect people from the harm caused by illegal drugs, including investing in the largest increase in drug treatment for 15 years”. These figures do, however, fall dramatically short of Dame Black’s estimate of a necessary additional investment in treatment and recovery services rising from £119 million in year one to £552 million in year 5. The government’s response also fails to acknowledge the devastating state of these services today and the government’s own role in their degradation.
Oliver Standing, Director of the national alliance of drug and alcohol treatment and recovery charities Collective Voice, is more optimistic. He refers to the government’s response as a “golden opportunity for the drug and alcohol treatment and recovery system”, particularly highlighting the “cost-neutral commitments” of the government as the most promising outputs from the response.
Standing lauds the announcement of the development of a cross-government drug strategy to “condense the political will behind the recent £80millon funding, the Black Review, and the creation of the unit into a single coherent narrative”, but awaits the release of the strategy before offering his full support.
After decades of neglect and years of tireless advocacy from drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services, however, any commitment toward rebuilding what they have allowed to exist underfunded and under-resourced is a welcome one.
Dame Black’s Review of Drugs, for the most part, has been a thorough, well researched piece of work that identifies many of the issues and solutions that the sector has been championing. This review should have opened the door for an alternative approach, rooted in public health – not criminalisation. The response however, has illustrated that the public are far ahead of politicians on the issue of drugs. Unless there is a u-turn, marginalised groups will continue to feel the deeply damaging failures of this tired “tough” approach to drugs.
Issy Ross is a Content Officer at Volteface. Tweets @isabellaross