Rethinking the War on Drugs

Britain’s longstanding “war on drugs” is hardly a noble fight. Rather, it is an attack on one of our society’s most vulnerable demographics that has turned drugs trafficking into a self-perpetuating problem. The sale and use of drugs simply cannot be curbed while addicts continue to be treated as criminal offenders. And it would seem that politicians are starting to take note.


On a recent trip to Colombia, Nick Clegg saw first-hand just how the country has been tackling its issue with the drugs trade. Chiefly, the Colombian government has aimed to reduce poverty and expand economic growth through offering employment opportunities to at-risk youth. Theoretically, if young people see that they have a chance for a life outside of a drugs trafficking gang, membership in such organisations no longer becomes inevitable.

In an article for The Guardian in February, Clegg called for a similar approach in Britain. He rejected the idea that the international drugs trade must be curbed either through complete legalisation or a military crackdown. However, Clegg did not go so far as to offer ideas about what solutions at home might involve. While it is refreshing to see a politician willing to admit to the need for drugs reform, Clegg ultimately failed to acknowledge that a degree of legalisation must factor into the equation.

According to The Guardian piece, there are a group of Liberal Democrats in government conducting an investigation into the ways in which other nations have dealt with the drugs problem. The study will undoubtedly have to note the effectiveness of the decriminalisation approaches utilized by Portugal and Switzerland. Drugs have been legal in Portugal since 2001. If found in possession of an illicit substance, an offender will have to attend a kind of “drug dissuasion” meeting with a panel made up of a social worker, a psychiatrist and an attorney. If caught again, certain sanctions—like fines or a foreign travel ban—can be applied.

Making drugs legal does not mean that a governing body thinks use is permissible, or should go without punishment. However, Portugal favours intervention into the lives of drug users rather than imprisonment. The government there even set up methadone clinics to help heroin addicts through withdrawal.

In the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from a heroin overdose, Russell Brand threw his opinions on drug legalisation into the fray in a Guardian article of his own. Brand, a recovering addict himself, touched on the societal detriments of prohibition, saying that it creates: “an unregulated, criminal-controlled, sprawling, global mob-economy, where drug users, their families and society at large are all exposed to the worst conceivable version of this regrettably unavoidable problem.” As Brand suggests, treating addicts as criminals rather than the sufferers of a treatable disease will do nothing to curb the production and distribution of drugs.

Addiction is a far-reaching; Brand uses the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to show that the disease can even affect those with all the trappings of success. However, the ones who suffer the most at the hands of current drugs legislation are not wealthy public figures. The poor, trapped in a crippling cycle of addiction and imprisonment, have little chance of bettering themselves or their situation. These are the people our government has been turning a blind eye to. As Brand says: “The people who are most severely affected by drug prohibition are dispensable, politically irrelevant people.”

The stigma surrounding drug users is only further exacerbated by their criminal status. When possession is punishable with prison time, an addict is not a sick person, but a fundamentally bad person. To put a stop to drug trafficking, we must first tackle the issue of drug use with compassion rather than legal action. If addicts are given access to the resources necessary to get clean—counseling, support groups, etc.—it seems they would be far more likely to do so. In 2010, the BBC reported the results of a study on Portuguese drug users conducted by Dr. Alex Stevens at the University of Kent. It was found that far more addicts took up treatment after the decriminalisation of drugs than ever before.

For Britain, the message is clear: drug laws must be reformed for any real change to occur. How do you win the war on drugs? The answer is simple: you stop fighting it altogether.


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July 2021
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