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Why I regret my war on drugs Prohibition has failed the most vulnerable in our communities – it's time to consider alternatives

Credit: Georges De Keerle / Getty

Credit: Georges De Keerle / Getty

September 24, 2018   5 mins

I am sorry for supporting the war on drugs. I realise now it has been a tragic disaster that has inflicted harm on the poorest parts of Britain and abject misery on people in the most desperate corners of the planet.

I am far from alone in having supported these policies. Yet perhaps my responsibility was more than most, since I was in charge of the justice system from 2003 to 2007 – one of the departments that put prohibition into action. But it is now time to acknowledge our collective failure, accept the evidence and start examining alternatives – ones that include the legalising and regulating of drug supply.

This sounds controversial, even though drug reform is sweeping much of the world from Canada to South Africa, the United States and Uruguay. But I make the suggestion based on evidence and my determination to protect the public from the ever more obviously cruel consequences of a wrong policy – not from a libertarian stance in favour of free choice.

In 1961, when I was ten years old, Britain signed the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs committing all member states to a global prohibition on production, supply and use of certain drugs for non-medical use. Xenophobia was the foundation of the convention, identifying those who were associated with the use of cannabis, opium and cocaine – namely Hispanics, Chinese and Afro-Americans.

Ten years later, the Labour Party supported the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It has continued to support drug prohibition ever since – in government and in opposition – although this pernicious policy has brought distress to millions and death to tens of thousands.

Prohibition, though, was a failure. You just have to look at the number of overdose deaths in Britain compared with countries that have moved from punishment to treatment, such as Portugal, to see this approach has been catastrophic. It created a fiercely hostile environment, acted as a barrier to troubled individuals seeking help and, in the process, hugely damaged the criminal justice system.

Westminster produced a lethal combination of political conformity and enduring cowardice, retaining the status quo as the body count rose and communal pain surged. For my own party, this was especially cruel since the damage is most acute in the poorest communities.

Westminster also produced cliches. “Tough on crime tough on the causes of crime” was the ultimate political sound bite. The perfect triangulation, providing all the benefits of sounding authoritarian and liberal at the same time. It was smart politics, protecting the Left from attack by a hostile media. It reflected the mood of the political time. Yet it prevented us politicians from acknowledging the damage done through criminalisation and from considering alternatives to a crime-led approach.

Relying on prohibition as the main policy tool gifted the drugs trade to criminals, creating a free and uncontrolled black market in which the biggest profits went to the most violent players. Meanwhile, we criminalised generations caught up in drugs, betraying people who should have been able to look to the Labour Party for a way out of their abandoned hell.

The main casualties were – still are – the poorest in society, since the drug war is in effect an attack on the working class. Clearly many users do not get caught up in crime or problematic use. But of the minority who do become hooked, often to blot out trauma or mental health troubles, some will deal to feed their habit or commit acquisitive crime to pay for supplies. If the official response is courts and criminalisation, this minority is further marginalised and even less likely to seek help. So there is no treatment and terrifying numbers die: because of overdoses after buying unknown drugs; because of impurities as gangsters pad out the products; and because of diseases caused by sharing needles.

We lose ten people a day in drug-related deaths. That means 70 Britons are dying each week, 280 each month – and most of these deaths are preventable. Perpetuating this dynamic is anathema to our values. It’s an issue that cuts across party lines: we are trapped in a drug policy crisis and Westminster needs to wake up to it.

For every pound we spend fighting the drug war, we have to spend many more just to clear up the mess. It is a terrible irony that the Home Office is pursuing a policy that creates half of all property crime and channels a vast income stream towards organised criminals. And the war on drugs is also filling our prisons. We currently have the highest prison population in Western Europe. And these prisons are awash with drugs, creating new addicts.

The drug laws are disproportionately enforced against black people. More and more we are seeing reports of how children and teenagers are being exploited to deal drugs across county lines, in operations similar to Prohibition-era bootlegging. Meanwhile the drugs on sale are growing stronger and cheaper, which is more clear evidence of failure. It is often easier for youngsters to buy cannabis and ecstasy than alcohol.

The damage goes way beyond our own borders. As signatories to UN prohibitionist treaties on drugs, our government is complicit in creating carnage from Mexico (30 000 people died in drug war violence last year) through to Mali (when the cocaine supply route shifted to West Africa and helped foster a coup). The global drug war is undermining security in as many as 60 nations while contributing to human rights abuses from the Philippines through to Bangladesh and Iran. In the United States, similar policies contributed to the deaths of 61,000 opioid users last year alone.

I recently returned from Portugal, where drug users are decriminalised and a health-based approach to drug use is in place. Consequently they have a drug-related death rate one-20th of ours. But the Portuguese have not legalised and regulated drug supply and the trade is still left in the hands of criminals, so I would like to see Britain go further. After all, legally regulated cannabis is now on sale in 10 US states, Uruguay and, from mid-October Canada, leaving governments in control of supply. There is no reason why this cannot be done here for all other drugs. The precise regime would be different for different drugs: for example heroin would only be available on prescription, with support from a clinician.

The British Medical Journal recently joined the ranks of those supporting the legal regulation of all drugs; even The Sun has asked if we should decriminalise drug possession. The Prison Governors Association accepts the war on drugs has failed. More tellingly, every cross party group that has ever examined UK drug policy has called for fundamental reform, including the Home Affairs Select Committee report of 2002 that called on the government to explore legalisation and regulation at the UN.

We must accept the facts.

So yes, I have changed my mind and I am now of the view the Labour Party cannot achieve its goals for disadvantaged individuals and poorer communities if prohibition remains in place. We need policies based on safety and health, not punishment. Numerous MPs on all sides now say the drug war has failed – but it would be more honest to say that it is we parliamentarians who have failed. We have individually and collectively failed to engage with the overwhelming evidence of catastrophic policy failure.

So where do we go from here?

The Labour party should call for an end to the drug war and commit to the legal regulation of drug production and supply in its next manifesto. Already two MPs – Thangam Debbonaire and Jeff Smith – have initiated the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. We have a radical Labour leader. And as a party we believe that the state should intervene where necessary to help and protect communities, especially the most disadvantaged and those devastated by violence. But for much too long, the Labour Party has failed to engage with these issues and ended up following a stale consensus driven by right-wing Republicans such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

We need to accept there are alternatives to policies that have failed so many working class communities. We need to admit that we abandoned whole generations to the scourge of drug addiction. We need to confront our political failures and listen to those police chiefs pushing for saner policies. Above all, we need to take back control of drug supply from the most violent gangsters. And it needs to be done sooner rather than later.

Lord Falconer is is a British Labour peer and barrister. He was Housing Minister, Criminal Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor under Tony Blair.


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