Andrew Boff is a member of the London Assembly
When I think about our approach to drugs laws, I often recall the rather overused quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
It sums up our drugs laws well. Prohibition has been in place for some time, yet people continue to use drugs and criminals continue to supply them. We put someone behind bars, someone else takes their place. Yet, we continue with this notion that drug laws are keeping us safe when they’re causing significant damage.
Last week, Dame Carol Black published her Home Office commissioned report, which concluded that Government interventions to restrict supply have had limited success, and even if all enforcement organisations were sufficiently resourced, it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in drug supply.
To understand the immensity of the failure of drug policy, we only need to look at the statistics. The illegal drugs market in the UK is worth an estimated £9.4 billion a year, this is almost as big as the UK wine market. Last year, in England and Wales around three million people took drugs. Most used cannabis, with 2.5 million users. This was followed by cocaine with almost one million users.
These statistics do not paint a picture of a law that is working. Just as the Pietism Movement tried to impose its moral beliefs on the US population through alcohol prohibition and failed; the UK establishment has tried to impose its moral standpoint on an unwilling UK population, many of whom have chosen to ignore these laws and engage in recreational drug use.
When I highlight such statistics to the guardians of current drug policy, in response, I will inevitably hear “What about the children?”. Indeed, what about the children? The children who can buy drugs because drug dealers don’t have age restrictive sales policies? The children who are being exploited into county lines and a life of criminality?
Drug use among children (aged 11 to 15) has increased by over 40 per cent since 2014, this appears to be occurring across a wide range of substances and across most demographics.
The Children’s Commissioner estimates that around 27,000 young people in England and Wales identify as gang members, and 2,000 teenagers from London alone have been identified as having a link to county lines activity.
There are two options available to remedy the situation; legalisation and decriminalisation. Legalisation will provide a legal means in which people can purchase recreational drugs, through a licensed supplier, which have standards and pay tax. Decriminalisation will allow possession for personal use, not the legal sale of drugs. I personally think we should use both options. Legalise mainstream drugs, ones that make up the bulk of supply in the UK such as cannabis, and decriminalise the more harmful, but lesser-used, drugs such as heroin, treating addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one.
The sheer number of people using cannabis is fuelling the illegal drugs market. Let’s put the criminals out of business, introduce quality control and bring in tax revenue – let’s legalise. Buying cannabis from the black market also acts as a gateway to more harmful drugs as dealers will use this as an opportunity to push more of their products; legalising it will sever this link.
Heroin and crack cocaine cost the UK over £16 billion a year, through reoffending, acquisitive crime, and health implications. In fact, offenders who regularly use heroin or crack cocaine are estimated to commit around 45 per cent of all acquisitive crime. Police action will not solve this alone and it’s common sense, and indeed financial sense, to invest in more treatments programmes for addicts. If we treat this as a health issue, by reducing addiction and increasing work opportunities, we can bring this bill down. We can’t do this if we just criminalise these users, who clearly need help.
This week, I raised these points at the Home Office Drugs Summit in Glasgow. While I’m not holding much hope that the Government will start listening, I do see light at the end of the tunnel. The public is becoming increasingly in favour of legalisation. In London, even the majority of Conservative voters are supportive of legalising cannabis.
The road has been long, but the end of prohibition is fast becoming a mainstream view.