Drug Policy: Are We Getting it Right?

Drug Policy: Are We Getting it Right?

Drug culture remains a challenge in the music industry and beyond. Is current UK policy fit to tackle it?

Let’s set the scene: it’s Friday night, and you’re waiting outside a club in North London. You finally make it to the door, your ticket and ID are checked, but there’s more to come. Airport style security is in place, searches are carried out, pockets are emptied, wallet looked through, and perhaps you have to walk through a metal detector. Most of us have now come to accept this state of affairs as part of a night out, because clubs are under immense pressure to prevent drug taking. But is this the right approach?

Talking about drugs is difficult; they’re naturally a divisive issue, emotions run extremely high when any public debate does occur, and it’s not difficult to see why. According to The Week, deaths directly or indirectly caused by drugs have risen from 53 per million in 2008 to 66.1 per million in 2017.There are several explanations for this shocking rise. Firstly, funding for drug and alcohol treatment services in the UK has been cut by around 30% in the last five to 10 years. Secondly, the nature of drugs on the market is changing: as science develops, dealers can produce stronger substances, which pose an ever-greater risk to those wanting to take them. Thirdly, new drugs have entered the market, such as Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and Spice, a synthetic cannabis product, both of which have begun to wreak havoc across cities in the UK. Finally, the way in which drugs are distributed has changed. Cross county operations known as ‘county lines’ have emerged, and the number of young people convicted of drug trafficking rose by 77% between 2012 and 2016.

However, the current debate remains grounded in emotional rather than rational reasoning, and, as such, has not provided a viable solution to the crisis that we now face. It is beneficial to step away from the traditional debate on whether drugs should be legal or not; it does not seem useful to repeatedly recite the reasons why people like or dislike drugs. Instead, we should shift focus to the UK’s current policy, on a local and national level, and explore whether it is fit for purpose.

Two key terms form the opposite ends of the drug policy debate spectrum: the user and the supplier. Essentially, the issue that faces policy makers is whether the former or the latter should be prioritised. A policy focusing on the supplier would tend to focus on attacking the symptoms of drug crime, such as possession, supply and violence. Drug crime fighting is  normally associated with negative police actions such as arrests and the jailing of suspects. However, it is easy to forget the positive community-based policing that attempts to deter young people away from crime. The benefits are clear: a reduction in the ow of drugs and criminals operating. However, here, no attention gets paid to the user.

On the other hand, policies focusing on the user tend to advocate harm reduction, research into the effects of drugs, community support, and education. This could significantly reduce deaths related to drugs, but it may not help current addicts to recover – and may even encourage potential new users. The current government appears to have followed a policy which focuses more on the supplier rather than the user. Police stop and search powers have been reinforced, ‘county lines’ operations have been intensified, and sentences have lengthened. At the same time, community support has been cut back and offender rehabilitation services are floundering. The crackdown on ‘county lines’ operations has been a notable success, with 200 arrests made in the space of a week last month, for example, according to the Independent. Having said this, drug use continues to rise, as does violence, deaths due to drug use, and the involvement of the young and mentally ill. So, where does the problem lie? Some researchers believe that an outdated perspective on drugs is the core issue at hand.

Let us consider the government’s perspective on drugs. Policy makers believe that the way to win the ‘war on drugs’ is to fight the symptoms of drug trade; there has been little pause to think about how we view different drugs and the state of our current policy framework. The simple dichotomy between hard and soft drugs is no longer relevant – gone are the days when the recreational use of drugs was limited to forms of cannabis. Today, young people are able to find a wide variety of substances, which greatly differ in their potency as well as their physical and mental effects.

This explosion in the recreational drug scene has not been mirrored by a sweeping set of policy reforms to keep pace with these rapid developments. For example, cannabis is a Class B controlled drug, as are synthetic cannabinoids, widely recognised as far more potent than their natural counterparts. Furthermore, possession of MDMA is as serious an offence as possession of heroin. The current classification system of drugs is primarily designed to aid prosecutors in cases against suppliers and producers, the justification being that the more ‘dangerous’ a drug is, the heavier the sentence it should carry.

In reality, very little is known about the effects of even the most well documented drugs, and researchers are only beginning to understand how drugs affect the brain. Thus, this justification seems somewhat sketchy. Furthermore, there appears to be very little thought given to how and where each drug is used. Of the eight drugs in the UK’s Class A category, three are informally known as ‘party drugs’. To equate an opioid used mostly at home on a frequent basis to a stimulant used at parties on an intermittent basis seems ill thought through.

The final result of the current drug classification system is that it increases the level of violence because of the risks involved in producing drugs which carry such heavy sentences. In sum, the hard-soft dichotomy is outdated at best and dangerous at worst; it pays little attention to the user or the indirect effects of classifying drugs in this way, and is hampered by a lack of knowledge around the dangers of each drug.

An alternative could be a system of classification that incorporates the type of drug as well as its perceived danger, in order to avoid the problems stated above. If that sounded far too easy a solution, that’s because it is. Changing one’s perspective on drugs is easy, but reinforcing that change is much harder. If this new framework were to be constructed, how could it be implemented? The aim is to increase safety, discourage use of dangerous drugs, prevent crime, and increase research funding, all whilst the number of police officers on our streets has decreased by over 20,000 and the government continues to cut back on police funding.

If a new drug classification system was introduced, with a greater focus on the type as well as the danger of each drug, police policies could be implemented to create greater separation between ‘party drug trade’ and what we traditionally call ‘hard drug trade’.This could perhaps go some way to reducing the violence we see today. Secondly, since investment in extra policing seems unlikely in the near future, the current police policy of prioritising the most violent forms of drug trade seems most sensible. There could be two funding priorities in this scenario: one being the prison system, to ensure that criminals can be reintegrated into, rather than alienated from, society. The other could be research bodies, which would be a great help to policy makers.

Finally, we come to the thorniest issue of all: harm reduction.There are two principal ways of achieving this: regulation and education. The problem is that the government does not officially sanction the use of drugs, so regulation is difficult, and education has to be very carefully arranged. Perhaps our priorities need to change, the fear of increased use pales in comparison to the danger of letting people continue to use drugs with very little knowledge of how to take them safely. But enough of the scare tactics. Since regulation of drug supply and quality is so difficult, if people want to take drugs, they need at least some knowledge of what to do and what not to do. Organisations like the Loop have been pivotal in this role in the last three years and continue to work to educate and reduce harm. Even if education reform seems a step too far for the government, investing in organisations like The Loop ought not to be. Policy makers could also learn from the example of the music industry; in superclubs such as Fabric, a massive improvement in medical facilities has aided in decreasing numbers of fatalities and major incidents.

The picture is unclear, and the problem is very complex, but that shouldn’t deter us from attempting to change the situation. Even in the current political and economic climate, there are concrete steps the government can take to advance UK drug policy.The picture is far more nuanced than it appears, even if you think the answer to the problem lies elsewhere.

This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.

Artwork by Lauren Faulkner