Why We Need a New Approach to Drugs | Karl Cooper
[Note: For the sake of this article, I’m going to omit talking about cannabis, as I believe that is a special case that would require an entirely separate article to explain. When I say ‘drugs’ in this article, I mean mainly recreational drugs that are not cannabis.]
I’m going to be honest, it’s quite risky for me to write this article for a conservative publication. The ideas and thoughts I are about to suggest are not just a far cry from conservatism, but also, somewhat taboo in the UK as a whole however I ask you to hear me out, because something needs to be done about our approach to drugs, as it is evident that our current system simply not working and arguably, it is doing more to harm those most affected, rather than protecting them.
As this issue is something I speak first hand from, a little bit of relevant information about me: I’m a 21-year-old techno and tech house music producer as well as DJ, and I like to think of myself as an active participant in the communities. The techno/tech house community, as well as the larger EDM (Electronic Dance Music) community is rife with drug use. Drugs the likes of MDMA, LSD, 2-CB, Ketamine et cetera are an awfully common sight at music festivals the world over. This isn’t something new either. Drug use has always been a part and parcel of festivals and music. Heck, the underground rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s was almost a ‘golden age’ of drugs on par with the 60s, with over 50% of 18-24-year olds admitting to taking at least one illicit substance. This is all despite the ever-increasing crackdown on drug use, the money poured into security, the harsher sentences, people are still using drugs and people are still dying from them. The ‘war on drugs’ as it is known, has been going on since the end of the 60s. Though whilst drug use is gradually falling, it is by far not in proportion with the amount of money put into said war on drugs.
So, what is going wrong? Well it’s simple: not only does drug prohibition not work, but it actively puts the most vulnerable people in danger.
Picture this, say that an average festival goer is stopped by police and is found with a few hundred milligrams of MDMA (enough for personal use). This person could potentially be arrested and jailed for 7 years plus an unlimited fine. All for the crime of what? Carrying around drugs? Are drug users really criminals, deserving sentences on par with murderers and rapists? So why does carrying drugs for personal use carry such a harsh sentence? Some people may argue that it’s a deterrent, though while it is true it’s a very ineffective tactic as festivals are still ripe with drugs of all kinds. In fact, the volume of drugs at festivals is so large that the police know that they don’t have a chance at stopping even a fraction of the drugs. The incredibly harsh sentences also pose another, even greater risk to festival-goers. Let’s say that two friends are enjoying some ecstasy and one of them begins reacting badly. The other friend could definitely call for help but is scared that their friend and themselves would be punished for possessing drugs in the first place. This only serves to put their friend in more danger, as medical attention would have helped save that person’s life. Instead, the fear of persecution puts that person’s life on the line.It’s about time we stop treating recreational drug users like criminals.
Whilst I do consider myself a libertarian (at least by UK standards), I’m not going to go all out and suggest we legalise all drugs. I know the idea isn’t palatable and it’s frankly not pragmatic however, I do believe the line of reasoning is sound, and whilst I agree all drugs shouldn’t be legalised, I suggest that personal possession of all drugs should be decriminalised. Now at first, the two sound like virtually the same, but there is a subtle nuance. Possession would still be a ‘crime’, however it wouldn’t carry the incredibly harsh sentences that it currently does. If a person was caught with illicit substances for personal use, the most that would happen would be that the drug was confiscatedand an on-the-spot fine. Now it must be noted that decriminalisation wouldn’t extend itself to selling drugs, being caught with drugs with intent to sell would still carry the heavy sentences that it does today but in my opinion, the most important step to stop drugs from ruining lives would be to remove the absurd sentences for personal possession.
Though the main criticism that arises from this proposed policy is that surely a greater access to drugs will only serve to increase drug use? Well to that let’s take a look at a case study: Portugal. Portugal was in the midst of a heroine epidemic on a scale the world had never seen before. 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, over 50% of people behind bars were there due to drug related offences, and the government was spending 90% of its budget set to combat drug use on enforcement, and just 10% on rehabilitation. In 2001 the Portuguese Government took a radical step and became the first in the world to decriminalise all drug use. Not only that, but they flipped their budget, instead, spending 90% on rehabilitative services and 10% on enforcement. Seventeen years later, Portugal, a country once wrapped in this awful opioid epidemic, now has a drug-induced death rate five times lower than the EU average. It’s rate of HIV transmission due to needle sharing is down from 104.2 new cases per million, to just 4.2 cases per million. Drug use overall has declined among 15-24 year olds, the age group arguably at the greatest risk of developing a habit. Overall, the drug consumption in Portugal was one of the lowest in Europe (accounting for population). Though it must be said that it would be ludicrous to suggest that just decriminalising helped Portugal’s drug use. An important statistic to note is the change in government spending, the government completely flipped it’s spending initiative. They recognised that punitive justice virtually never works when it comes to the drug users themselves. Throwing someone away for 7 years for their heroin addiction isn’t going to magically cure their addiction. For many drugs, especially heroin, going cold turkey can actually have very serious and harmful withdrawal symptoms. In fact, people have been known to die from opiate withdrawal due to the complications caused by it. Thus, the Portuguese government focused more on rehabilitation. Actions from providing free clean needles to prevent HIV spread, to offering free counselling sessions for those affected, as well as trying to reduce the stigma around drug use, was really what brought Portugal’s drug epidemic under control.
The UK certainly isn’t in any kind of epidemic on the scale of Portugal’s, so how can the UK, and at large the world, learn from them? If we want to reduce the harm that drugs cause people, then the first step is to drop the ‘zero tolerance policy’ that we have. Drugs can be dangerous, but they don’t have to be. For the overwhelming majority of people who are hurt, or who die from taking drugs, either did so because they took pills that were cut with impurities to bulk the drug, or they took way too much of the drug. A number of festivals have already recognised this and have set up confidential ‘drug testing tents’ where you can take your pills and your powder and have them tested for impurities before you take them.Some private companies are also providing affordable do-it-yourself drug testing kits. These tactics work. At some music festivals in 2015, it was reported that as many as 1 in 5 decided not to take their drugs after they were tested, which could have potentially saved lives. I believe that our government should be taking steps to embrace these new ideas and following suit, offering confidential drug testing at local clinics and pop-up tents at festivals and nightclubs. Current services and attitudes towards drugs also need to undergo a change. The popular ‘Talk to FRANK’ is basically designed to scare you into not taking drugs by showing you what could happen, yet the website, and others like it, don’t provide guidance on how to actually take the drugs safely to actually prevent the stories which it uses to scare you. The tragic case of 15-year-old Martha Fernback is an example of this. Martha died in 2013 after an overdose of MDMA. It was found however, after the police investigated, she had been found to have been googling ‘how to safely take ecstasy’ on the night of her death. It’s clear that there is a lack of reliable information available on the internet on how to take many drugs safely, but organisations refuse to offer such advice in the fear that they would be normalising the use of drugs. I ask them, is the pride of not ‘normalising’ drug use worth the cost of many lives lost due to the lack of information surrounding safe drug consumption? Taking the moral high ground when it comes to harm reduction is not only selfish, but extremely dangerous. If websites and institution such as FRANK and the NHS provided information on how to test and safely take drugs, it would do a lot more to prevent drug deaths than our current system of punitive justice. On top of that, for those addicted to drugs, we should stop treating them like criminals, but more like victims. Confidential therapy and counselling should be paramount when it comes to dealing with those addicted to drugs. This is also important given that for a lot of drug users, their addictions are sometimes rooted in deeper trauma or mental illnesses.
The decriminalization of drugs would also greatly help into researching the effects of said drugs. Currently, it is very difficult for research and testing on illicit substances due to extensive red tape and licenses required. Decriminalising drugs is a potential solution to this problem, as it would reduce the number of hoops needed to jump through and increase the rate of important studying and research of these drugs. An interesting example of the product of this research is the use of Ketamine as a potential treatment to alcoholism. Another example is of course, the use of medical marijuana to treat many diseases such as cancer, epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome. LSD has been seen to potentially be a cure to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Of course, these forms of the drug are highly pure, laboratory produced research materials, a lot safer than street drugs. Though the heavy paperwork is still there, a lot more research could be done if the laws surrounding the drugs were changed.
At the end of the day, I believe it’s still a long way off before we see these kinds of changes implemented. The UK still retains an unfortunate paternalistic attitude towards drugs which will likely continue for some time. But as festival season this year comes to a close, it would be wise to take a good look at taking our treatment and attitude of controlled substances into a new, more informed direction. I don’t blame people for their attitudes towards drugs, it’s how we’ve been brought up. But if our main objective is to prevent drug-related deaths, then our government needs to change its attitude towards drug users and seek to treat those and provide counsel, therapy and advice to those affected, not punish and condemn them.