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The drugs (policies) don’t work


The war on drugs has failed, but is drugs reform really just a pipe dream?
Kitty Webster investigates.

Illustration: Tom Deason /

‘The truth is when you have an addiction you no longer have a choice,’ Tony, who used crack and heroin for thirty years, tells me.

‘I was doing drugs just to function. Once you’re in that disease and it’s got you, you act against your will on many occasions doing things you don’t want to do because any constructive thought you have in your head is overridden by the thought of needing drugs’.

Tony is one of an estimated 82,000 in Bristol whose lives have been affected by drug addiction – either their own, or the addiction of a loved one, and many more have problems with alcohol. I met Tony at the Compass Project in Staple Hill, a social enterprise made up entirely of people with a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Many have been in and out of prison. All the volunteers are in recovery and are given work experience and training to help reintegrate them into a society many had never felt a part of.

Under current UK and global drugs policy, drug users are treated as criminals and huge numbers of people have been locked up. But two thirds of the British public now think the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed and support a review of UK drugs policy. Martin Powell works at Transform, a think-tank based in Bristol campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs. Powell argues that the war on drugs ‘has led to the creation of a $320 billion black criminal market from which all kind of other harms stem including the destabilisation of whole regions, from Latin America to increasingly Western Africa. It diverts money away from health into law enforcement. It creates stigmatisation of users which stops them seeking help. It also creates massive amounts of crime.’

Prohibiting drugs

Almost 15% of the prison population of England and Wales are serving sentences for drug offences, making up the third largest offence group in prisons. It costs £36,808 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year. In 2013 there were 10,221 people locked up on drugs charges.

Tony was one of those. ‘For me the threat of going to prison never stopped me doing drugs. And that’s not just for me, all the people I went to jail with, all the people I used drugs with – sending people to prison doesn’t solve anything. It’s never got people off drugs.’

Tony’s experience isn’t unique; it’s backed up by evidence. A Home Office report released last October looking at different approaches to drugs around the world showed that there was no link between tough drug laws and reduced levels of use. In other words, people don’t stop taking drugs because they face a harsh penalty.

‘The reality is’, Powell tells me,

‘whether a drug is criminalised or not isn’t the determining factor. Drug use is driven by social and cultural issues and by people’s health and wellbeing. The vast majority of drug use is in fact non-problematic, in that it doesn’t actually cause harm to individuals or society. The issues arise when people use drugs as a sort of anaesthetic to take away pain and that is often something that people leading difficult lives and from poorer and more marginalised backgrounds suffer from. The last things that these people need are sticking in prison.’

 Reforming drugs policy

With the evidence mounting that the war on drugs has been a failure, it’s not surprising that governments around the world are looking for alternatives. A number of countries have introduced reforms that treat drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue and even in the US, four states have recently moved to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis.

In Portugal all drugs were decriminalised in 2001. Those caught with drugs aren’t sent to prison or given a criminal record, instead those who need it are given advice and access to treatment. Drug use has fallen slightly, cases of HIV/AIDS have decreased and the number of drug related deaths have dropped significantly from around 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012.

Compare this to the situation in England and Wales, where the number of people taking drugs is increasing, prisoner rates for drug offences continue to rise year on year and, last year, deaths from opiate use, including heroin, increased by 32%.

It’s important to remember that reforming drugs policy doesn’t mean making it easier to buy drugs.

‘It’s precisely because drugs are dangerous that we need to introduce strict control and regulation into a market where there is currently none’, Powell explains.

‘Decriminalising drugs will save lives, improve health and reduce crime. At the moment there are no ID requirements to buy from an illicit dealer, no health information on the packaging, no quantity limits, no purity guarantees, and certainly no one watching out for users and refusing to sell more to them if they have a problem and signposting them to treatment’.


The tide is turning

Calls to reform drug policy in the UK have, up until now, largely fallen on deaf ears. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are unwilling to carry out a formal review of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which determines our current prohibitionist policy. But the times are changing and as some smaller parties, including the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, call for reform it doesn’t look like a pipe dream after all. If MPs are elected in May that favour a review of current drugs policy it could mean that reform is on the cards.

But regardless of national legislation, there are things that can be done here in Bristol to save lives and protect people using drugs. Powell tells me about trials held in Brighton where heroin users could visit special clinics to be prescribed heroin for supervised on-site use alongside health, housing and psychological support. The scheme led to a large reduction in the use of street drugs and crime, but hasn’t been rolled out nationally because of a lack of political will and a backlash from the media.

In Durham the Chief Constable and the Police and Crime Commissioner, are campaigning for reform and have called on the local police to treat low level cannabis crime as a low priority in order to free up time for police to concentrate on more serious crimes.

I asked Bristol’s mayor, George Ferguson, and the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, whether they are open to considering such initiatives here and if they would support forming a review body to carry out an impact assessment of current drug policies on the people of Bristol. The mayor didn’t respond, and Sue Mountstevens replied: ‘It is not for the police to pick and choose which laws are upheld.’

In fact, there is scope for innovative policies to be implemented in Bristol if the political will is there.

Back at the Compass Project I ask Tony what he thinks about drugs being legally regulated rather than being controlled by a criminal black market. He takes a minute to think. Drug use for him has been a path of self-destruction and devastation and the last thing he wants is more people experiencing it.

‘The current system creates crime and chaos on every level, from the higher level of production to the lower level of supply. If legal regulation means that the people in control of drugs cared about you and instead of profiting from your addiction were able to offer better access to support and treatment then it goes without saying, that’s got to be a better system.’

 Kitty Webster is reviews editor at Red Pepper magazine and a freelance journalist based in Bristol


 Find out more about the Compass Project at

Find out more about the work of Transform at

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