The UK government’s recent drug strategy announcement offers a fresh and much needed change in perspective. Though the emphasis on diversion over criminalisation is a positive step, the government should go further in ensuring our approach to drugs is not merely reactive, but proactive. For example, the disappointing lack of support for drug consumption rooms (DCR) and other harm reduction services is a glaring omission from the government’s long-term plan leaves the UK vulnerable to a worsening drug deaths crisis. 

This is to some extent understandable within a wider geopolitical and political context. Harm reduction measures aren’t generally afforded great attention from those in government unless there is a public health emergency. Ministers tend to focus on issues facing the majority and problematic drug users are very much perceived to be a minority in the UK. However, public opinion can change as a result of harm reduction measures and examples of this from Australia should encourage the British government to make change. 

A heavy emphasis on harm reduction services was invaluable during Switzerland’s response to their drug death crisis in the 1980s. Though their approach was largely reactive in nature. The UK could set a significant precedent in the Western world by being proactive, which could result in saving many lives.

A lack of proactive action can also be explained through the creation of the broken global drug control system that emerged with the establishment of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). Those with the most influence over this body, the US and the USSR, held strong prohibitionist ideals which prevented any progressive drug policy change. 

This led to the creation of several drug conventions which served as prohibitionist mechanisms. Switzerland managed to stay within the 1961 Convention’s boundaries and this convention shaped the UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Due to this, change has been difficult on any level as national governments are required to work within the UN conventions.

However, there is cause for optimism; in recent years, the UN Chief Executives’ Board has called for the ‘decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use’ and ‘changes in laws, policies and practises that threaten the health and human rights of people.’ Those fighting for progressive drug policy change in the UK can now have hope that proactive measures can be implemented because the UN is now taking a more open-minded approach to drug policy.  

The current prohibitionist system was created by the largely unknown Harry Anslinger following the Second World War. Anslinger was the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) from 1930 until 1962, and he detested drugs after his neighbour fell victim to them. Over the course of his career as head of the FBN, Anslinger shaped global drug policy to his will, by engaging in misinformation and intimidation and by taking advantage of racial tensions and fears. He also personally led a campaign against ‘marijuana’, which created and stoked fears around the drug that exist today.  

Anslinger’s tactics were particularly apparent during his smear campaign against Victor Lacata and this case set a precedent for the stigmatisation of drug users in the US. This stigmatisation also takes place in the British media and can serve as a barrier to progressive harm reduction policy. For example, the term ‘shooting galleries’ has been disingenuously used by the British media for some time to validate fears and stigmatise drug users. 

Thankfully, a report in 2018 by the Global Commission on Drugs Policy led to advice for journalists to change their language when reporting on drug addiction. This may lead to a more tolerant environment around drugs, as more positive news stories and fewer fear mongering articles are written.

As the little sibling in the relationship with the US, the UK consistently sided with the US on drug policy, and foreign policy generally, during the 20th century. This allegiance held firm because the prohibitionist agenda was truly global and this was because the USSR offered its support to US proposals, in the CND, on several occasions. 

Into the 21st century, the US has struggled to stray from this ingrained psychology when it comes to drug policy. State level legalisation of marijuana has been encouraging but little appetite for this on a national level has stalled any real progress. This has, to some extent, influenced the lack of progress made in the UK on progressive drug reform. It is therefore no surprise that the UK is not moving towards harm reduction measures, when they are also being resisted on a federal level in the US.

Public opinion can drive political change and – public opinion is changing. In Scotland, a recent study showed that the majority of Scots support DCRs. This is likely to have been influenced by the drug deaths crisis ongoing in Scotland, similar to how public opinion changed in Switzerland as its opioid crisis took hold. The rest of the UK is not going through a similar drug deaths crisis and that is likely to mean that a smaller percentage of the population support DCRs. 

Yet, a study from Sydney shows that attitudes towards DCRs change after they have been introduced. Following the introduction of a DCR in Sydney, perceptions, among local residents, that DCRs attract drug users, make drug law enforcement difficult and encourage or condone injecting drug use decreased significantly. As the Sydney study also concluded, these results are similar to those in Europe, specifically Rotterdam, when similar harm reduction measures were introduced. 

The government doesn’t have to wait for a drug deaths crisis to introduce harm reduction measures. Instead, they can be confident, after studies around the world show that public opinion can change around DCRs after the general public has seen their positive effects. This, alongside a less stigmatising media and a progressive UN, can empower the UK government to introduce harm reduction measures whilst being confident that public opinion will change with them. 

This piece was written by Tom Crouch, Contributor at Volteface. Tweets @TomCrouch6

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