Why are the conservatives ‘cracking down’ on drugs?

Why are the conservatives cracking down on drugs and what does this mean for UK drug policy?

by Katya Kowalski

Over the last few months, there’s been a push from the government to ‘crack down’ on antisocial behaviour and stamp out illegal drugs in communities. Why are the conservatives cracking down and what does this indicate about drug policy in the UK at the moment?

Rishi Sunak recently announced the government’s plan to clamp down on drugs, with their plan to harshly enforce this in order to ‘strengthen and protect communities’.

For reformers, this news obviously comes with a significant amount of frustration, given the established evidence base that this approach doesn’t work. So, why are we seeing this occur?

When it comes to drug policy, the government doesn’t base their decisions on logic or evidence. They base their decisions on what they think the public want to see and how they can win more votes. People like simple messaging as that is what the average person can get behind and drug policy is morally complex, making it a challenging subject to communicate positively in the media. That’s what is going on here. 

This sort of rhetoric polls very well with Tory voters. Although attitudes of the younger generation are changing, a large portion of the British population still very much support the clamping down on drugs, seeing it as antisocial behaviour. 

A YouGov poll found exactly this. Younger Brits were much more likely to think that our drug laws are too strict, whereas the older population thinks they are too lenient.

Times are clearly changing and there is a shifting attitude toward drugs, but it is happening slowly and the classic social conservative voter base is still against this. Much of the reason for this is the way in which the mainstream media reports about drugs. Drugs are inherently political – that’s why they are brought up in such a sensationalist way in the media. It is an easy way to get people riled up and simple messaging that politicians can use to win over votes.  

A few weeks ago Scotland announced its call for the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal supply as a core policy. This is naturally a welcome move from reformists, treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one – a policy rooted in evidence. However, this was quickly shut down by Downing Street with PM and Cabinet Ministers stating there are no plans to alter their tough stance on drugs – making it highly unlikely to occur. 

Another backward step was taken earlier in the year with the government’s decision to ban NOs, reclassifying laughing gas as a Class C drug. This unwelcome change comes after the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) advised against this. This is particularly frustrating given the ACMDs role as an committee of experts is to advise the government on how they should update and amend their drug policies. However, the government have framed the ban in a way in which conservative voters can get behind and support.

Off the back of this we’ve seen an increase in police crackdowns into organised drug crimes. Last month the BBC reported police seizing up to £130 million work of cannabis plants and arresting nearly 1,000 people. 

These sorts of headlines make the government seem like they are taking action to protect communities, as highlighted by Rishi Sunak. However, these seizures don’t actually achieve anything – it gives the impression to the average person that the government takes the issue seriously and is clamping down, when it has absolutely no influence on shutting down illicit drug trade.

And when there is positive work done to reduce drug related harm, the mainstream media shuns it. In response to the fantastic work of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), former Home Secretary Priti Patel said that universities have “blood on their hands” and that it was disgraceful to accept that students do drugs. This sensationalist, inaccurate reporting of drug use on campus is harmful and spreads misinformation regarding the purposes of harm reduction. 

So, what does all of this mean for UK drug policy? It means that with a general election approaching in the next 12 months we are unlikely to see positive changes. Which is to be expected – drugs become a hot topic in the leadup to an election and tends to be an area that is veered away from with party politics.

It isn’t all bad as we see Scotland positioning themselves far from the Tories with their call for decriminalisation. Whereas, Labour have steered clear from the subject as something which could potentially cost them votes. Whilst it means both parties will stay clear of any reform until 2024, if Labour get in, we could see positive progress post-election.

Unfortunately the UK government continues to go against the evidence base for drug reform, remaining unaware of the fact that cracking down on drugs doesn’t work and is simply a populist, simplistic approach to appease the voter base. 

If we really want to see change in the way drugs are perceived by the British public and our politicians, we need to see a change in how the media report on them. If we can reframe drug reporting in the mainstream media as something that isn’t gritty or controversial, we’ll be onto something.

Katya Kowalski is Head of Operations at Volteface. Follow her on Twitter @KowalskiKatya. 

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