by David Barbour, SCSN Communications Officer

The UK Government has published plans to increase criminal penalties against people who use drugs, titled ‘Swift, Certain, Tough: new consequences for drug possession’. It’s very difficult not to emit a long, slow sigh.

Rather than ‘Swift, Certain, Tough’, many with knowledge and lived experience of drugs and community safety are frustrated and tired. Tired of having to repeat, again and again, that criminalising drug users is a counter-productive, retrograde policy. A policy that runs counter to evidence on why people use drugs; what might help them recover if they have a serious problem with their drug use; and what helps reduce crime and build trust in criminal justice.

Our complaint begins with the assumption that there is no such thing as recreational drug use. The introduction to the strategy begins with the dismissive phrase ‘so called recreational drug users’, as if the notion that people might use drugs just to have fun was beyond consideration. Which might ring true, if a majority of the population wasn’t out every weekend, recreationally using one of the most harmful drugs there is: alcohol.

The United Nations’ Office for Drug Control acknowledges that 90% of drug users use drugs with few serious harms or problems (notwithstanding the risks posed by handing control of what’s in these drugs over to organised crime). Only 10% of drug users develop serious problems like dependence or addiction.

As the Scottish Government rightly acknowledges, people who develop serious problems with drugs have a health problem, not a criminal problem. Try to imagine for a minute any other health problem being treated by arresting people, processing them through courts, putting them in prison and branding them with stigma and a long term, life limiting criminal record, and you get some idea of how unhelpful and unfair this approach is. More so when we know that problematic substance use is strongly linked to stress, trauma and mental health problems.

Occasionally, those who advocate for criminalising drug use will attempt to divert and obscure the issue. Those who can’t win the argument on health grounds try to convince with tales of morality, see this recent article by celebrity Judge Rinder as a classic example. They claim demand for drugs (or drug use) helps to fund serious organised crime. Yes, it does. But is that the fault of the drug user? Or is it the fault of a government that chooses to cede control of drug markets to serious organised criminals?

Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix series Narcos. It details (with some artistic licence) the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and the period after his killing by police, when a rival drug cartel rises to prominence in the cocaine trade.

Whilst this is a fictionalised version of these events, it details actual events and violence that took place in Columbia, beginning in the 1970s and which continues to this day. Thousands of people have died in the ‘War on Drugs’ in Columbia alone. Escobar was responsible for terrorist attacks and the murder of hundreds of police officers, as well as the assassination of a presidential candidate. Many civilians were caught in the crossfire of violence. And today in Columbia they still are.

Throughout the series, we see debates between officers of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Columbian politicians, where tensions between apparent failures by Columbia to stem the drugs flow to the USA – and Columbian criticism of the USA for failure to dampen or stamp out domestic demand for cocaine – bubble to the surface. At an airport in the Columbian capital, a US DEA agent righteously attacks a Wall Street trader for using cocaine, telling him that on average six people die in order to get one kilo of cocaine from Columbia to the USA. It was a good example of erroneous apportioning of responsibility for the violence, terrorism and death caused by the ‘War on Drugs’.

Columbia has just elected a new President who has declared the War on Drugs a failure and called for a global convention that accepts this reality.

Drug use should never be a crime. It might not be a good health decision, but surely that’s for individuals to decide, fully informed and aware of the facts about the relative harms of the drugs they want to use? That’s what we do with alcohol and tobacco, and even coffee beans after all. We educate, discourage heavy use, limit availability or marketing and tax.

Prosecuting people, either for having a good time using substances, or because they have a serious health problem also serves to seriously undermine public confidence in the police, who have no choice but to enforce the law of the land. This is especially so in the case of younger people, minority ethnic communities (as noted in the Runciman Report 2000) and in the LGBTQI community – groups who, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, are more likely to use drugs and in some cases to use them problematically.

Indeed, much of the reason why LGBTQI people like me are more likely to use drugs problematically (I am a recovering alcoholic – and alcohol is a drug), is because of the stress and trauma caused by past UK Government laws (e.g. Section 28, same sex relationships being illegal), current UK Government discourse on transgender people (which has been found to affect all LGBTQI people) – and the enforcement of these laws (including police harassment and entrapment).

Having already been unfairly targeted and abused by Government and society (in my view, LGBT-phobia is child abuse), and this having contributed to drug problems, it feels a bit on the nose for the government to then punish you again for self-medicating for the trauma they played a large part in causing.

The situation is little different for black and minority ethnic people, who have been traumatised through generations by institutional and social/structural racism (not to mention the slave trade before that) which continues to this day. Of course, some in the current UK Government don’t believe in institutional racism, which is a problem if we’re going to recognise it and tackle it.

There are some facts that governments and societies will eventually need to reconcile with policy:

  • The ‘War on Drugs’ has failed. It’s a war on people. It creates and perpetuates violence and helps to fund serious organised crime of all types, including international terrorism. It makes communities in Scotland and across the globe less safe.
  • Alcohol and drug use is a health problem, not a criminal justice issue. Providing people with facts around the risks of both, and good information on how to use alcohol and drugs safely is the best thing we can do.
  • Most people use alcohol or drugs to enhance social occasions and do so without severe harm to them or others
  • You will never eliminate demand for alcohol or drugs
  • Alcohol is a much more harmful drug, both to the individual and society (via alcohol fuelled crime and unintentional injury) than most other current illegal drugs

One wonders how long we will have to wait.