London, United Kingdom – There is always a chance for change where there is a need for it, says Jim Duffy, a retired police inspector and former chair of the Strathclyde Police Federation.
With more than 5,500 people dying as a result of drug use across the United Kingdom last year – the highest number since records began – activists, health professionals and law enforcement agencies agree that change is vital. And that change needs to be in the nation’s drugs policies, according to a growing movement campaigning for reform.
Duffy gave evidence on problematic substance use on behalf of Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which on Monday released a landmark report with recommendations to tackle the health emergency.
The cross-party group of MPs want the possession of drugs for personal use to be decriminalised across the whole of the UK to tackle the drug-death crisis. They are also calling on Westminster to support safe consumption rooms in Scotland.
“The relentless increase in drug deaths is a tragedy that cannot be allowed to continue,” the report reads.
However, Duffy felt both surprise and disappointment when learning of the committee’s recommendations. While he believes they are a good place to start triggering change, they should have gone further to recommend legalisation. “It’s an opportunity missed,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Scottish Affairs Committee report echoes the call for “radical change” from the Health and Social Care Committee, which came at the end of October. The MPs in that group released a report that suggested a health-focused and harm-reduction approach would benefit both people who use drugs and the wider communities around them.
The report highlights the example of Portugal, where decriminalisation was introduced in 2001. It says the change of strategy there has not made it any easier to obtain drugs while the number of people arrested for drug-related offences more than halved between 2000 and 2012. Portugal’s drug death rates and HIV incidences have also plummeted.
Sarah Wollaston, a Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, said every drug death should be regarded as preventable, and that UK drugs policy is clearly failing. “There needs to be a radical upgrade in treatment and holistic care for those who are dependent on drugs, and this should begin without delay,” she said.
Her committee, like the Scottish Affairs Committee, did not go as far as recommending the legalisation and regulation of currently illicit drugs. That is simply not good enough, say some people whose lives have been irreparably tainted by drugs.
Among them is Ray Lakeman, whose two sons died of drugs overdoses after taking five to six times the lethal dose of ecstasy in 2014. Lakeman believes Jacques, 20, and Torin, 19, would still be alive today if it were not for the UK’s policy on drugs.
“Because drugs are unregulated and an illegal business, they had absolutely no idea what the dealer had given them,” he told Al Jazeera. “Had ecstasy been regulated they would have known exactly what they were taking, and they wouldn’t have taken as much as they did. Having been through it, every time I hear about other people dying, I do believe that nearly all of them would be alive had these drugs been regulated.”
Lakeman felt compelled to take action – he did not want his sons to become mere statistics. “They’re too important for that,” he says. He joined the drugs policy reform crusade and is a member of Anyone’s Child, an international network of families whose lives have been destroyed by the loss of loved ones to drugs. They hold current drug laws responsible and are campaigning to change them.
The organisation believes that regulating drugs would reduce the risk they pose. It is pushing for an end to the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and for a proper, health-based system of control to replace the current regime of punishment.
“Drugs are currently 100 percent manufactured and distributed by criminals – there is no minimum age, quality control standards or duty of care,” Jane Slater, deputy chief executive and campaign manager of Anyone’s Child, told Al Jazeera.
“We would like to see the sale of drugs licensed, as is the case for alcohol and tobacco, or placed under the control of medical professionals such as doctors and pharmacists.”
Slater says drugs policy reform is one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time. It comes as the UK is facing a public health emergency borne out in the record drugs-related deaths figures.
There was a 16 percent annual increase – the highest since records began in 1993 – to a peak of 4,359 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018.
In Scotland, drug-related deaths surged by 27 percent to 1,187, which is the largest number seen in the nation and more than double the figure for 2008.
Lakeman says the appalling number of deaths is evidence of the failure of current policies, which cost the UK taxpayer an estimated 10 billion pounds ($13bn) a year.
“The death toll is unforgivable because it’s possible to stop it,” he says. “But it’s not possible to stop it with enforcement and prohibition. If we really are insistent on doing something to prevent harm we have to accept that what we’re doing at the moment has been a complete failure.”
He says he is starting to feel optimistic about the potential for reform. He received a lot of support from MPs when he spoke outside of the Houses of Parliament in June and says people are becoming more receptive to change.
We might get a change of attitude in the government that comes in. But the longer this goes on, the more people die.
Kit Malthouse, the government minister for crime and policing, said when giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee that he keeps “an open mind” on harm reduction issues, specifically safe consumption rooms. He added though: “It is worth saying that there are some significant legal hurdles.”
Despite the Conservative Party pursuing a 20 million pounds ($26m) crackdown on “county lines” dealing in a doubling down on the war on drugs, other parties have suggested they would adopt a more pragmatic approach.
Labour in September said, if elected, it would launch a royal commission to independently review all drugs legislation. And in October, the Scottish National Party backed decriminalising the possession and use of drugs, while the Green Party said it would introduce mechanisms for the legal regulation of drugs, including specialist pharmacies dispensing substances over the counter for recreational use.
With a general election scheduled for December 12, perhaps Lakeman is right to feel optimistic.
Duffy feels somewhat hopeful too. “We might get a change of attitude in the government that comes in,” he says. “But the longer this goes on, the more people die.”