In July 2022, the Home Office of the United Kingdom published a white paper titled Swift, Certain, Tough: New Consequences for Drug Possession, outlining a new three-tiered punishment system for drug possession.
Aimed at targeting middle-class people who use drugs recreationally, who the government blames for fuelling crime in the country, the white paper proposes to require first-time offenders to pay for and attend a “drugs awareness course”; second-time offenders to be subjected to randomised drug tests and to attend more extensive drugs awareness programmes; and third-time offenders to be charged and, if convicted, punished under a new Drug Reduction Order. According to the white paper, this new order would include four possible “interventions”: exclusion from certain venues and events, passport confiscation, driving licence disqualification and “tagging” with drug use monitoring bracelets (however, the Home Office itself admits the technology that would make the fourth intervention possible does not yet exist).
The draconian white paper is the latest offensive in the UK government’s decades-old war on drugs in which it has repeatedly attempted – and failed – to reduce the demand and supply for drugs through punishment and coercion.
The proposals, if formally coded into law, would see the government double down on an ineffective and harmful strategy that curbs fundamental civil liberties, overextends policing powers and disproportionately harms marginalised communities.
Research shows – and has shown for some time now – that cracking down on drug supply and use does not reduce drug-related harms. Even the Home Office’s own evaluation of its current framework, published in July 2017, has stated that the 1.6 billion British pounds ($1.9 billion) a year spent on drug law enforcement has little impact on drug availability and found no clear links between the intensity of punitive enforcement and levels of use.
Public health experts in the UK and across the world are in consensus that punishment-focused drug reduction policies produce harmful outcomes. Just last month, 500 public health and criminal justice experts expressed serious concerns over the government’s recent proposals in an open letter organised by my organisation, Release and Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
“The proposed extension of punitive policing targeting people who use drugs runs contrary to the overwhelming body of evidence and threatens to draw limited resources into policies likely to exacerbate a range of social and health harms,” the experts said. “We urge the Government to instead develop a genuinely public health centred approach and focus on evidence-based health interventions that target those in need, while avoiding harmful punishment and criminalisation of the very groups we are seeking to support.”
Experts had previously outlined what a “genuinely public health centred approach” would look like. In December 2021, virtually every medical association and royal college of health practitioners in the UK signed an open letter calling for the government to set up overdose prevention centres (OPCs) – facilities where individuals consume their own drugs supervised by trained staff who provide health support, including reversing overdoses. Available evidence demonstrates that, unlike various punishments imposed on drug users and suppliers, OPCs are highly effective in preventing drug deaths.
The UK, as it struggles with a public health crisis of drug-related deaths, is in desperate need of such evidence-backed, life-saving solutions. Indeed, in 2022, 4,564 people died as a result of illegal drug use across the country. This unprecedented figure, the highest since records began, amounts to 12 deaths a day – more than three times more than the number lost to road traffic accidents.
Despite the gravity of the crisis, policymakers have refused to heed the calls for establishing OPCs, claiming they would be unable to do so without infringing the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act – a law they can easily amend.
Why is the UK government still refusing to pursue harm-reduction strategies proven to save lives? Why is it insisting on punitive enforcement despite undoubtedly being aware of its ineffectiveness in the context of drugs?
We have long passed the point where lawmakers could claim “they do not know how to proceed” or “require more evidence”.
Those deciding the Conservative government’s drug policies know what they should do, but they are prioritising short-term political gains over British lives.
Instead of funding OPCs that are proven to prevent drug deaths, they choose to ramp up punishments for drug possession, because they want to prove to voters that despite all of their failings political and moral failings, they are still “the party of law and order”. Furthermore, by heating up their immoral and unwinnable war against drugs and drug users, they are hoping to distract the public from the fact that they have presided over the disintegration of the UK’s health and social support system during their decade in power.
When it comes to the issue of drugs, the Labour Party is not exempt from guilt either. In their dogged pursuit of power, Labour parliamentarians are increasingly co-opting their Conservative rivals’ punitive approach to drug control. Rather than amplifying expert voices who are mostly calling for an end to the incarceration of people who use drugs, they opt to echo the populist calls for harsher sentences. Regrettably, punitive drug policies have bipartisan support in the British Parliament.
The threat posed by punitive drug policies like the one outlined in the July white paper is not only an increase in harm to those who use drugs. Such policies also disproportionally harm marginalised and already overpoliced communities. Indeed, despite supposedly being aimed at deterring middle-class recreational drug users, the proposed three-tier system and the increased policing it necessitates will impact racialised minority communities and those living in poverty the most. This is particularly shocking coming at a time of record-low confidence in policing.
Drug law enforcement has always been a leading driver of racial disparity in the British criminal justice system, with policing and prosecutions of drug possession offences being unduly focused on Black and minority communities. The government’s most recent proposals will only further exacerbate these disparities, devastating the lives and future opportunities of many. The enforcement of a punitive system that deals with a public health issue through arrests and daily harassment of minorities will do little to improve health or public confidence.
Today, the global discussion on drugs is focused on decriminalisation and legalisation. Several states in the US, where the deadly “war on drugs” originally began, have already legalised cannabis and some even started to pardon prior convictions related to the drug.
Evidence is mounting on how non-punitive policies improve health outcomes for problematic drug use while also reducing rates of offending and recidivism. From the United States to Uruguay, Portugal to Australia, countries around the world have understood that you cannot arrest and punish your way out of a public health crisis. The UK, a nation that once led the globe in tackling public health challenges such as the HIV epidemic, is increasingly left hobbling behind its peers. With liberal nations steadily recognising the historically racist and systemically unjust impact of drug prohibition, Britain wades against the current of change. It’s time for it to turn and face the evidence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.