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Opinion

The government’s new drugs strategy cannot win the ‘war on drugs’

The government needs to treat harmful drug use as a health crisis, not a crime, says Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer.

The government has hailed its new drugs strategy as the most ambitious for a generation; one that sets out a bold long-term vision of how to both tackle drug crime and improve treatment.

Certainly, the £780million pledged to rebuild drug treatment and recovery services is to be welcomed, but fundamentally, at heart, the strategy represents another chapter in the ‘war on drugs.’ It is the sixth such strategy in 23 years and it follows a now familiar pattern of failure. Over the same period illegal drug-related deaths in the UK have doubled.

Harmful drug taking needs to be treated as a public health issue. Going after drug users with draconian measures won’t address the harm that drug taking can cause.

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Most harmful drug use is underpinned by poverty, isolation, mental illness, abuse, physical illness and psychological trauma. Without tackling the wider economic and social causes of problematic drug use we cannot hope to address the impacts of harmful drug use.    

We also need to be honest in communication with the public. One third of adults and a quarter of adolescents in England and Wales have taken illegal drugs at some point in their lives.

A third of 15- to 16-year-olds in Europe say that obtaining cannabis on the illegal market is ‘very easy’ or ‘fairly easy’. People in the UK spend £10billion on illegal drugs each year which is roughly the same as they spend on footwear.

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But the cost to society of illegal drugs is estimated at around £20bn per year. And when people are criminalised for minor drug offences it uses up police resources, reduces the life-chances of those who are caught and does nothing to reduce the scale of the market.  

It’s clear that the decriminalisation of drugs is long overdue. Greens want to replace prohibition with a legalised, regulated system of drug control. Different drugs would be regulated according to the specific risks that they pose to the individual, to society and to the environment. Drugs that pose the highest risks will be subject to the heaviest regulation; less risky drugs will be subject to lighter regulation. This is the way to end profiteering from the supply of drugs and take power away from unscrupulous criminals. 

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Cannabis is generally accepted to be at the lower end of the risk spectrum. A wave of liberalised cannabis laws have swept across North America. It is now completely legal to buy cannabis in Canada and ten US states have legalised the drug for recreational use.

And now in Germany, as part of the coalition agreement where Greens are in power, the government has confirmed that it intends to legalise and regulate cannabis for recreational adult use.  

At the other end of the risk spectrum, Green councillors in Bristol have been lobbying for years for the introduction of a safer drug consumption room – a measure that would save lives. Bristol City Council now supports the proposal. But the Home Office has refused permission for the city to host such a trial, saying that anyone running them would be committing a range of offences.

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However, at the risk of breaking the law, a safer drug consumption room opened in Bristol last week. It is of course unofficial, but it is hoped that the consumption room will prove a positive example of what can be achieved with a progressive approach to drug use; a safe space where users can be supervised by staff who are trained to treat an overdose, rather than injecting in the street. 

There are already nearly 200 safe drug consumption rooms in operation across the world in 12 countries, which have reduced the health problems related to injection of drugs, and social and crime problems associated with street drug use.

The government’s new drugs strategy cannot win the ‘war on drugs.’ Both the Conservatives and Labour attempt to outcompete each other on who can look tougher in this war. But their rhetoric does little to address the tragedy of the hundreds of lives lost to harmful drug taking every year. 

As Greens we are interested in winning the peace; improving health and well-being for everyone in society.

To achieve that we will need to treat harmful drug use as a health crisis, not a crime, and end prohibition to create a system of legal regulation. This is the way to ensure an inclusive, supportive and socially just approach to drug use.

Carla Denyer is co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a Green councillor in Bristol

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