Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
One feature of the media’s coverage of the pandemic that many of us will be pleased to see the back of were the daily reminders of the Covid death count. For many months, switching on the television or picking up a newspaper meant being barraged with distressing figures of those who had sadly passed away from the virus.
While the presentation of this data may have been understandable at the peak, the tallies gave little context to the thousands of people who sadly die every year from other causes, and contributed to our obsession with this one disease over all else.
Now, with the worst of the pandemic behind us, the scale and breadth of the nation’s broader health crisis is becoming apparent. Besides the millions waiting for routine and life-saving NHS treatment, one crisis that is becoming ever more acute is the scale of drug-related hospital admissions and deaths in this country.
The ONS revealed last week that there were 4,651 drug-related deaths in England and Wales last year alone – the highest tally since records began in 1993 and 3.8 per cent higher than in 2019. The number of deaths may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they are by no means an anomaly; drug deaths have risen year on year for the past eight years, each leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
The data make for a sobering read; it is a tragedy that thousands of people are dying prematurely in this way. But what is a true national scandal, is the stubborn unwillingness of successive governments to change tack.
That the war on drugs has failed is indisputable. By nearly every conceivable metric it has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite decades of “cracking down”, drug use continues to rise, drug-related crimes account for a third of the prison population, county lines gangs remain rampant and drug-related violence shows no signs of abating.
A new strategy is set to be announced in the autumn, with the aim of once again cracking down on illegal drug use, this time among the middle classes. In a new PR campaign, users will be told that they are helping fuel Britain’s epidemic of violent crime and gang warfare – as well as exploitation and corruption around the world – all in a bid to change the “perceived acceptability” of taking drugs.
Of course, it is true that too few recreational users give a second thought to the violent reality of the drugs trade, and it would be no bad thing if more of us refrained from drug use, not least for the sake of our own health.
But this latest PR drive looks to be characteristic of a government paralysed by a lack of policy direction. This may be a relatively cheap intervention, but it will likely be a waste of money nonetheless, that will sadly do little, if anything, to prevent a black market that is fuelling organised crime and misery in this country.
What’s more, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet’s involvement in the campaign will only serve to bring fresh media attention to their own personal experiences of drugs – of course, Johnson is known to have dabbled in a little cocaine and marijuana in his younger years. Again, opening himself up to accusations of hypocrisy and “one rule for them, another for us”.
In terms of law enforcement, the drive will be supported by a fresh crackdown on recreational use. Priti Patel has reportedly told senior police officers to “name and shame” middle-class drug users and to make examples of business owners and wealthy users.
There have been numerous political interventions over the years, consultations, papers published, and debates held in parliament, attempting to change the way we handle this problem. But these have been largely fruitless.
William Hague made his own change of heart clear in The Times this week. After years of backing a “tough” law and order approach, he is now advocating that we take lessons from Portugal, a country which has gone down the decriminalisation route, choosing to treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.
It is curious how on this issue there is such a lack of will at the heart of government to debate the potential for change, despite growing evidence that the war on drugs is failing. As with so many areas, the Government is ostensibly trapped by status quo bias, unable to look beyond the same type of interventions that have clearly failed to resolve the problem, and arguably exacerbated the problem.
Interestingly, the mood among the public is shifting on drugs. Earlier this year, 52 per cent of Britons said they would support the legalisation of cannabis, compared to 32 per cent who opposed it. Whether this translates to support for decriminalisation of other drugs is less certain – indeed, cannabis has been all but decriminalised by stealth – but it may encourage a more open-minded discussion of the way we currently do things.
When it comes to different areas of policy, we must not shy away from learning from international best practice – whether it be our health service or education system. Continuing a tried and failed strategy would be a mistake. And one which will ultimately cost lives.