Campaigns to either legalise or decriminalise drugs have grown stronger in recent yearsWikimedia Commons

This February, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer ruled out a liberalisation of drug laws, citing the “criminality” that sits behind drugs, and the “huge issues” this causes to vulnerable people. This view is generally accepted; most people you asked would tell you there is an inherent danger associated with most illicit with drugs. However, if you were to plot a graph of the harm of drugs, including legal ones, against their class in this country, there would be no correlation. In 2010/11 8,000 people died from alcohol related diseases, 1,000 died from opiates. Our drug laws are unjust. Increasingly it is being argued that illicit drugs, rather than being inherently harmful, are also safe in moderation necessitating us to rethink our drug laws.

Much of our understanding of the harmful nature of illicit drugs comes from research carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. Rats were surgically connected to self-injection apparatus, put into isolated cages and taught how to self-administer the drugs. Researchers watched as the rats chose drug injections over food and water, ultimately killing themselves through neglect. Thus, the researchers inferred that if drugs were so freely available to people, mass-addiction and a resulting social crisis would be the certain result. Here we find the justifications for our current attitude to drugs.

“Is it not clear that our incessant criminalisation of drugs is both flawed and outdated?”

However, these justifications are deeply flawed. Lab rats are by nature curious and social, so the isolation of the experiment must have been similar to torture for them. Arguably, most rats, or people, would turn to drugs if locked alone in a cage with no other choice. Due to this, in 1977 a team of researchers decided to challenge the findings of these previous studies. The researchers divided the rats: one set in isolated metal cages, the other in a large, hospitable “Rat Park” with plenty of other rats. Their experiments, using morphine as the drug, indicated three main threads.

First, that coaxing in terms of forced isolation and sugar were essential in making the rats want to take drugs. Importantly, levels of consumption in Rat Park remained below those of the caged rats. Second, it was evident that when given the choice to live a ‘normal’ life with comfortable housing and socialisation, the rats had little interest in drugs. Finally, physical, mental and social factors were more important in influencing the rats’ drug habits than chemical addiction. Is it not clear that our incessant criminalisation of drugs is both flawed and outdated?

What the Rat Park experiment seems to show is that the criminalisation of drugs is not supported by evidence of increased harm The UK’s drugs policy is therefore clearly unfounded and unfair. It is true, as Starmer says, that the criminality often involved with drugs does seem to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

"Hart realised that it was not drugs, but the context in which they were taken, that mattered."Wikimedia Commons

The best way to help vulnerable people would be to offer them social support. Carl Hart, regular heroin user of five years, parent and professor at Columbia University argues that he is “better for [his] drug use.” Hart is a living example of the Rat Park findings. The way he came to his realisation further supports the Rat Park conclusions; after visiting his white friends in more affluent neighbourhoods and witnessing them taking the same drugs he believed destroyed communities, Hart realised that it was not drugs, but the context in which they were taken, that mattered. There is no evidence to say that good quality cannabis causes schizophrenia or psychotic disorder, and Hart states that in the lab at Columbia where thousands of doses of cocaine are given every year, they never have anything like a heart attack. It is essential that we ask ourselves whether maybe, the criminalisation of drugs, alongside poverty, is doing the harm.

“... maybe, the criminalisation of drugs, alongside poverty, is doing the harm.”

Although the question of how to proceed seems complex, there are examples across the world of effective, progressive drug policies that the UK could emulate. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession and consumption of all illicit substances, and instead of arrest, users were offered support. This saw drops in problematic drug use, and hepatitis and HIV infections plummeted, with HIV infections dropping by 101.8 new cases per million between 2000 and 2015. Many in Portugal are still pushing for legalisation, making the pertinent point that decriminalisation decreases control, whereas if all drugs were legalised, they could be subjected to the same quality and safety standards as medications, food, and drink. This is also something that Clear Cannabis Law Reform is arguing for here in the UK.

In 1994, Switzerland introduced policies that facilitated heroin-assisted treatment. Not only has the number of new heroin users in Switzerland declined, but, as in Portugal, HIV infections have dropped, while drug overdose deaths also decreased by 64 per cent. It is clear that reform is actively saving lives. Denmark and France have also opened drug consumption facilities. And yet, the UK remains stuck in the past, with the leader of a progressive party seemingly incapable of calling for change.

Drug policy is carried by a flawed ideology. If we can see evidence that illicit drugs are not inherently harmful, if we can see other countries implementing liberal drug legislation that works, we have to be introspective in wondering why, as a country, we are immovable. Politicians look to a crusade against drugs as proving their morality, whilst refusing to support those vulnerable communities they claim to be protecting, and in fact endangering them through over-policing and prosecution. To put it frankly, a way of removing the criminality surrounding drugs, would be to remove the criminality surrounding drugs. The way forward, as consistently exemplified, is support for communities and users rather than policing and vilification.


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