Marshall Tisdale is studying history and politics at Cardiff University.
Scotland was recently shown to have the highest drug death per capita of any other European country, with the rest of the UK having the fifth-highest.
This figure should be a wake-up call, to both the SNP in Scotland and to the Conservatives in Westminster. This needs to be met with a new, radical approach to tackling drug-related issues. That approach should start with two things. Decriminalisation and legalisation.
It is clear by now that the UK’s war on drugs have failed. Consumption is up, overdoses are up, and our prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders. We cannot carry on with the same old policies and attitudes towards drug use. These were summed up by Boris Johnson in the first leadership hustings in Birmingham a few weeks ago. In answer to a question on the issue of drugs, Johnson’s response was “drugs are bad”.
It bothers me that such a simplistic statement has essentially been the driving force behind policies to deal with one of the most complex issues of the last few decades. ‘Crackdowns’ on drug use is not the solution the country needs to tackle the epidemic we face. Instead we need to look for solutions that work, and the best place to look isn’t too far away.
What stood out most to me in the drug death per capita statistics was not just that Scotland saw the highest rates in Europe, but that Portugal saw the second lowest. This is the same Portugal that in 2001 decriminalised all drugs in its efforts to deal with their own drugs death crisis. Since 2001 in Portugal, deaths from overdoses have dropped by 80 per cent, while the percentage of drug users diagnosed with HIV fell to seven per cent – from 52 per cent between 2000-2015.
Decriminalisation, in Portugal’s case, helped begin the road to recovery. Only once we start treating drug users as victims rather than criminals, and drug consumption as a public health matter and not a criminal one, can we be serious about reducing death rates.
What follows from decriminalisation are public health policies geared towards safe drug consumption. Establishing safe consumption rooms and needle exchanges helps reduce the risk of drug-related deaths. Treating drug users like human beings with a problem encourages greater numbers of people voluntarily entering treatment – again, as seen in Portugal.
The Conservative Party need to get behind these initiatives. They aren’t even too alien to the UK; countless numbers of Police and Crime Commissioners have been arguing for these measures for a while. If the Conservatives, and our next Prime Minister, threw their weight behind these initiatives, then we could be seen as a credible voice in the mission to end this epidemic.
However, decriminalisation is just one piece of the puzzle of effectively grappling with the UK’s high drug death rates, not to mention reducing drug use and ending organised drug crime. Admittedly, decriminalisation in Portugal hasn’t seen a clear impact on drug use, it still ebbs and flows. But, if paired with legalisation of marijuana, there is case to be made that drug use could fall.
If the Government were to legalise and regulate the sale of marijuana, then you remove the need for a black-market supplier. You put a choke hold on the black market and organised criminals. There is no way they can compete with the regulatory powers of the state and the initiative of legitimate businesses. It’s akin to the end of prohibition in the US, and the subsequent decline of the American mafia.
The only thing I see stopping the Conservative Party and its base in changing its approach to drug issues is its fear that doing so will lead to a drug culture in this country. The issue there is, there already is a drug culture. Around ten per cent of British adults take some form of drug each year, and this figure doubles in the age group aged 16-24. More importantly, around 50 per cent of the British public support weed legalisation, with just 24 per cent opposing.
Our Party needs to catch up with the rest of the country on drug matters. We already have a political class that have partaken in this drug culture, its time they now start addressing it.
I feel it’s time to put to rest the idea that legalisation would turn the UK into a population of layabouts. One just has to look to countries like the Netherlands, and certain states in America, to see this is not the case. We need to fight the disinformation and false narratives around marijuana if we are going to be serious about tackling wider drug issues in this country.
My pitch to Johnson and Priti Patel, our new Home Secretary, is this: if my 76-year-old Mormon grandfather can get behind marijuana, then so can the rest of the party and country.