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Britain’s criminal approach to drugs As addiction and fatality figures surge, Portugal may hold the solution

Britain has a lethal political approach to drug taking. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty

Britain has a lethal political approach to drug taking. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty


July 30, 2021   7 mins

Our nation’s politicians have long been guilty of an inflated sense of exceptionalism. But there is one area in which Britain indisputably leads Europe: the rate of citizens succumbing to drug-related deaths. We account for one-third of all such fatalities on the continent and the numbers have risen shockingly fast in recent years. Scotland heads this tragic table — and new statistics today show the desperate toll is worsening with 1,339 such deaths last year, an increase of five per cent on 2020. Next week, data from England and Wales is likely to show a similar surge, despite rising more than 50% over the previous decade.

These deaths are the predictable result of political failure. For decades, politicians have been hooked on prohibition. They have pushed the idea that use of illicit drugs should be punished and persisted with suggestions they can stifle flows of heroin, cocaine and cannabis, rather than accepting there is strong demand and focusing on harm reduction. The absurdity of their stance is exposed by the failure to keep even top-security prisons free of drugs, while on the streets prices fall, purity rises and new synthetic drugs arrive. This is, after all, a country with 11,000 miles of coast that sees 500m tonnes of goods a year move through its ports — yet total annual consumption of cocaine could fit in a solitary shipping container.

The legacy of such political irresponsibility is seen in these grim fatality figures. Our leaders outsourced the drug markets to criminal gangs, which rely on violence and grooming of young recruits to dominate their lucrative trade. There is, of course, no quality control on the content or strength of their wares. So forget all that Tory talk of levelling up, given the devastating impact of these policies on poorer parts of society. In England, the highest rate of fatalities is found in the north east, three times higher than further down the coast before the pandemic. In Scotland, epicentre for this whirlwind of misery, hospitalisation rates for drug-related incidents are reportedly 16 times higher in low-income areas than more prosperous parts.

The data is even more dispiriting when you probe prohibitionist policies. It is 50 years since signing of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which banned possession, supply, manufacture, import and export of controlled drugs — arguably the most damaging piece of legislation passed by parliament in recent decades. Since then, the number of heroin users in England and Wales has risen 25-fold, according to analysis by Transform Drug Policy Foundation, while drug-related deaths have soared more than 30-fold. The fatality rate in Scotland is ten times the average across Europe — and it has more than doubled over the past five years. Half of our homicides are also linked to drugs (along with half the acquisitive crimes and rough sleepers).

Could there be a more damning indictment of failure than all these corpses? Yet politicians cut support for treatment centres, pushed abstinence and kept pandering to fear with disastrous consequences. In Scotland, much of the rise in fatalities is down to use of benzodiazepines. Media hysteria led to tightening of the rules on legal prescriptions, which choked the supply routes for people abusing these drugs and thus incentivised criminals to develop the market for ultra-cheap, high-potency street benzos − the “blues” behind much of the horrifying carnage north of the border.

Or take events in parts of northern England after police targeted the cutting agents used by cocaine dealers to pad out their products and hike profits. Yes, this led to successful prosecutions of people found in illicit possession of large quantities of benzocaine, a mild anaesthetic used by dentists. But the result was simply a sharp rise in the purity of cocaine sold on the streets of places such as Manchester. Prices also plunged at the same time from about ÂŁ45,000 a kilo to ÂŁ30,000 a kilo, according to the charity Release, due to increased production in Latin America. This is close to half the ÂŁ55,000 cost of a wholesale kilo 12 years ago on official figures, indicating significant rise in supplies.

“The drugs market is resilient and increased money for policing, increased busts and increased prosecutions do little to disrupt the trade,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release. “Even when borders have shut across the world in the pandemic it had little effect on the supply chains. This is a business that adapts fast, so as the government lauds the success of law enforcement closing down so-called county lines, new supply models are developed. We need new thinking, we need to start exploring decriminalisation and we need regulation of these substances.”

She is right. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure — as shown by the government’s own reports. These admit Britain has the highest number of cocaine and high-risk opioid users in Europe, disclosing that there has been rising cocaine use over the past decade with recent hikes “clear in most age groups” and purity at highest levels on record due to “increased availability’. A 2017 review of strategy revealed central government spent ÂŁ1.6bn on enforcement, yet “drug seizures
 had little impact on availability” although there were “potential unintended consequences
such as violence related to drug markets”.  Even the biggest of drug busts barely dent supplies or costs on the streets, as many cops will admit.

It is estimated the “harms” cost England an astonishing ÂŁ19.3bn a year, mainly due to crime and health. Yet Boris Johnson, unveiling a package of rehashed crime policies last week to look strong for his red wall voters, misleads the public with continuing pretence that we can beat the “scourge” of drugs. His ministers talk of “tough law enforcement” and win headlines for “cracking down” on recreational use with more testing after arrests. They claim this will “challenge drug misuse, reduce demand and change the perceived acceptability of using illicit drugs”, while a cross-government summit will “drive down demand for illegal drugs”.

I doubt cartel bosses and drug barons are quaking with fear over Johnson’s drug bash. In truth, it is bordering on criminal to see politicians stick to their bungling stance as the death toll mounts. Yet there are signs that behind the tough talk, the state’s backfiring drug war stance is starting to crumble. Both Scottish and English governments are putting a bit more cash into treatment while two key parliamentary committees have called for drug decriminalisation. “We recommend a radical change in UK drugs policy from a criminal justice to a health approach,” said the health and social care committee. “A harm reduction approach would not only benefit those who are using drugs but reduce the costs for their wider communities.”

Many frustrated police forces, fed up with wasting resources, are simply pressing ahead with “diversion schemes”. Avon and Somerset, North Wales, Thames Valley and West Midlands were among the first to follow the successful lead of Durham in seeking to slash reoffending rates and save costs by offering drug education or treatment as an alternative to arrest, cautioning or prosecution for people caught in possession. At least eight more have followed suit, with Scotland among others developing schemes. “You could call this de facto decriminalisation,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform. “But that word seems problematic for this government because of worries it is seen as being soft on drugs.”

Rolles pointed out, however, that these strategies are winning ministerial plaudits and were backed by this month’s Black review into drug strategies. But surely it is unacceptable to have a postcode lottery that sees one person caught with a small stash of drugs end up in prison with a criminal record, while another sits through talks learning about harm reduction? Not to mention the inflammatory racial bias seen in police stop and search efforts focused on drugs. “We need to stop people going to prison for drugs since it is the wrong place for those people with problems,” said Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser.

Nutt was sacked in 2009 by the New Labour government for daring to tell the truth about cannabis, ecstasy and LSD being less harmful to public health than alcohol and tobacco. Since then, cheap potent, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and mephedrone have arrived on our shores. But both big parties remain terrified of talking honestly to voters about drugs, although the few MPs breaking ranks have found the public in a more progressive place than they anticipated. Meanwhile there is increasing interest in Portugal, which 20 years ago this month showed a way out of the drug morass under the leadership of AntĂłnio Guterres, now United Nations secretary general.

Portugal acted out of desperation at a rising death toll. It had high levels of heroin use at the turn of the century, hundreds of deaths, highest rates of HIV infection in the European Union and prison cells filled with people sentenced for drug offences.

“It was almost impossible to find a family in Portugal that did not have drug-related problems,” said JoĂŁo GoulĂŁo, architect of their reforms. So they decriminalised drug possession, focused on health rather than punishment, shifted from abstinence-based campaigns and flipped funds into treatment. The result is shown in the latest annual data for drug-related deaths: 62 fatalities in a population twice the size of Scotland.

This is a spectacular turnaround. Now Portugal has among the lowest drug-related death rates in Europe, along with some of the lowest levels of use among younger generations. There is still a bedrock of high-risk opioid users, although numbers have fallen significantly and habits tend to be less problematic. It remains illegal to deal drugs. But those found with small quantities for personal use are sent before a local commission — typically a doctor, lawyer and social worker — to be told about support services. “We do not focus on drug problems but any issues people might have in their lives that lead to drug use,” said GoulĂŁo. “This is the key to our success. No one ends up in prison with a criminal record and stigma.”

Other countries have also seen the light, such as the Czech Republic and Spain. If Britain had followed similar policies, thousands of lives might have been saved. And these deaths should not be dismissed: they are a symbol of collective societal failures as well as a sign of lethal political stupidity. It has been shown time and again how the hallucination of prohibition can have perverse consequences by fuelling death, innovation and sales rather than depressing demand. So let us stop pretending another bust, another crackdown and another poor sod with mental health struggles being sent to prison is going to stop the use of drugs. Portugal shows there is a path forward that is cheaper, kinder and safer for everyone — as well as more honest about human nature. So why not level up with the electorate?


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Between 1939 and 1941, the Second World War was a dismal failure from the allies’ point of view because we fought it so badly. Surely the same applies to the war on drugs? The problem is not that war has been declared; it is that our forces lie idle – more interested in prosecuting “hate” than dealing with real crime. You mention gaols. If drugs are rampant within their walls it is a clear instance of simple inefficiency. Indeed, preventing prisoner access to such substances would undoubtedly risk riots, but again it is only because a raft of excessively laxist laws prevent effective repression. One form of spineless despair leads to another. And your solution, not bothering to declare war at all, otherwise known as surrender, will lead to a vicious occupation. Rather than putting the counter cultural cherry on the left-liberal cake, why not smash the whole thing with a wholesale counter-revolution? I know, I know – it’s too difficult.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Drugs, Terror, Borders – all lost causes during a 21st Century asymmetrical war that our leaders haven’t even woken up to yet.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

We could have saved scores of millions of lives and avoided two major wars if we had just surrendered to Wilhelm II. And … no drug, terror, immigration or border problems for 107 years … all for the small price of being bilingual now.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Excellent reply Simon. It is the breakdown of Family first, which is 90% from Liberal policies of paying for low attainment people to have children they cannot support, and then the perversity of adding penalties rather than incentives, when the man lives with them. Takes two parents to raise a child optimally.

Second is is breakdown of community, this is also from Social Programs in a very great many ways, the lack of proper discipline in schools, the permissive attitude like this guy….

These drugs are poisoning your children, so he wants to make them legal? Ask China how much the legal opium worked during the 1800s, when it was a government concession, and every price and law and quality and weights and measure was strictly enforced. Ask Xi if he thinks legalizing Opium is a good idea. Well actually, ironically most of the Fentanyl and other chemical drugs come from there.

Next: License burglars so they are trained to not harm the property when entering, will never enter when the residents are home or risk losing their license, their income can be taxed, and you will stop jailing people for just wanting some cash.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Excellent points, clearly argued. Yes, above all, to the China argument. It remains an appalling blot on British imperialism that we enchained the Chinese in the vile opium habit – along with the Anglo-French destruction of the great summer palace of the Emperors. And your use of the word poison is apt and unanswerable. It is precisely the recognition from the 1860s forward that certain substances are immensely harmful which led to regulation – of arsenic, for example, along with all other such agents. Why, then, the extreme libertarian desire to undo that Victorian good in favour of a Victorian evil? Because it chimes in with other forms of anti-social self-indulgence. Liberty, equality, fraternity said the French Revolution. Correctly – they each deserve a hearing. Alone, they are monstrous. Fraternity alone leads to fascism; equality alone to communism and liberty alone to anarchy – whether of the political or the moral sort. We are living with a vile, anti-fraternal conspiracy of the worst, resentment-driven equality and the worst, anarchy-prone liberty, to which the answer can only be a Conservative revival.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Eh? nobody made the Chinese take it and the notion that there was no opium available in China before the British turned up is more lie than myth, a lie beloved of the CCP and UK left. Some of the best opium and hash available comes from the Tien Shan foothills, the ‘Stans and Chinese Himalayas. “Milk of Mazar” maybe a brand image but the plants that make it are spread in a 1000km circle from MazariSharif itself.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Pretty uniform negative reaction in the comments.

Does anyone have anything to say on the example of Portugal?

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Precisely. What a bunch of idiots respondingf to this article and deliberately misreading it in pursuit of their own anti-woke, anti-liberal etc. agendas rather than addressing the practicalitie.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

Hmmm. Middle class liberal-luvvies want to decriminalise drugs. I wonder why that could possibly be.
Also. As long as you have middle class liberal-luvvies thinking it is acceptable (funny, even, certainly harmless) to snort coke (and I’m looking at you, BBC people), then you are always going to have a drugs problem.
These types are oh-so-bleeding heart about everything but don’t stop to think for a minute of the cost of their addiction on other people e.g. in Colombia.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

I have been down with the lowest of addicts, lived in their world, this writer needs to join them and see the whole picture. What does this mostly is hopelessness. A bunch of people who feel utterly without hope, but not on drugs, may be an improvement, but not much of one.

This guy wants to tackle the symptom, but does not care about the disease.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Isn’t it the war on drugs that is tackling the symptom (drugs) and not the disease? And isn’t he advocating treatment of mental health problems (the disease)? Did I miss something?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

You missed a great deal. The war on drugs is a war on crime.

It is not a mental health issue for the most part, it is that young people have been raised to not have full time employment which would consume their energies, and also give them hope in life, and meaning.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
is one of the great truths. Young men especially Must work. They have huge energy which has to be consumed or it will turn to anti social, or self destructive, behavior. This is our genetic directive.

When young feel they will not be able to work themselves into home ownership and marriage, or at least, a fair apartment, girlfriend, car, pocket money – but are locked out of the real world as they just cannot have the work to support that, they are idle and hope less. They have no ability to imagine why early death matters, that losing years to addiction matters, they are caught in the cycle of hopelessness – and it is not really mental health – it is that they just never got qualified to be able to succeed, for many reasons. They have been raised to FAIL, and so are failures, and a psychiatrist is not going to fix them. Only society being fixed will.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Ok, so let the disease be hopelessness, and its cause societal failure. I still don’t understand why that analysis lends credence to the war on drugs, which has nothing to say to “people who feel utterly without hope” beyond trying (and failing) to keep drugs away from them. Best case scenario, as you say, “may be an improvement, but not much of one.” Whereas if something were done about the hopelessness, we wouldn’t need a war on drugs because the true disease of which drug use is just a symptom would have been dealt with.

O Thomas
O Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I find this quite unpersuasive. I agree with your general thrust about society, and youth — male youth particularly — but a “war on drugs” doesn’t address those factors at all. Even with terrible addiction it’s trying to drain the tub with the taps running. And as for being a war on crime, when applied to e.g. cannabis the fact that it is a crime is arbitrary when we have a legally sanctioned but more dangerous drug like alcohol absolutely everywhere.
I suppose the issue is: better to draw a moral line above a random set of drugs and make policy that is ineffective but does reflect that this behaviour is beyond the pale in society, or compromise morally with policies that might suggest it is less taboo but yield much superior outcomes?

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As David Lee Roth wisely said early 80s when asked “do you have a drug problem?” His reply: “not now, i can afford it”.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

As night follows day, right after drugs are decriminalised there will follow a Twitter campaign for the rights to use them at work and to sue your employer if he then fires you for being off your t1ts.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, but Jon, there has been no campaign to use or consume alcohol at work; and nicotine is no longer accepted in the work place.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Scott

Agreed, but equally there hasn’t been a campaign to come to work as a man one day and a woman the next.
An important difference between drugs and alcohol is that you do not to become intoxicated on alcohol to enjoy it. Alcohol with food improve one another and wine has complex flavours that you can appreciate in small amounts. Nobody crunches up a pill or sticks a needle into a vein because they enjoy the taste or feeling. They’re only ever, by definition, used to get off your t1ts.
This being so, someone is sure to argue that as it’s legal to use drugs and as all they’re for is getting off your t1ts you should be entitled to do so at work; and it’s hate speech to argue otherwise.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Absolutely spot on, Mr Redman.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

As night follows day, decriminalise an unwanted activity and you get more of it. Certainly possible to debate what happens once people enter the criminal justice system, which the author addresses; but removing this avenue will have unintended consequences not suffered by your average bien-pensant, be they abstemious and ascetic or, even worse, those who adopt decadence as an affectation.

Meanwhile, I’ve just savoured the last glass of a well-aged Faugeres. And so to bed.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Our employee contracts say its a breach of contract where the use of drugs impairs your ability to do your job. We are all desk pilots. Note we don’t discriminate between recreative and prescription drugs. Some of our best sales reps have been space cadets. Not sure if i’d be so keen to see such contracts for pilots, doctors, gas fitters etc.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

Misses several points; riddled with non-sequiturs and frames arguments as as binary choices. To begin with:

People ending up in prison for a small stash? Not usually, no and almost never as a first offence. After a string of other convictions is another matter.

Will people wish to buy currently illicit drugs legally? How would this work and which drugs as they are all very different substances.

The rise of heroin use in the UK in the 1980s was not a consequence of drug laws introduced a decade earlier; far more significant were the changes in international production and supply chains.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Al M

Another thing – Where are the relevant statistics! Who are the ones doing all the crime? Are they a problem UK Imported? Because my guess is the yes side is the weightier side.
Maybe as well as keeping drugs out you need to keep people who are likely to become social negatives out too.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago
Reply to  Al M

‘Will people wish to buy currently illicit drugs legally? How would this work and which drugs as they are all very different substances.’
i wondered that. If drugs were made legal, would people be able to buy any drug they wish from shops like we can buy fags and alcohol today?

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

The most effective drugs program?: jobs, jobs, jobs.
The worst drugs program?: A UBI: Pay people not to work, to stay home, to get depressed, to drink, to smoke, to shoot up.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
2 years ago

There is a big financial incentive to produce, export and sell narcotics in the UK. You can remove this incentive either by (1) liquidating the growers, cartels, dealers and the facilitators (this is not a desirable option for liberal politicians and military), or (2) you can legalise narcotics, tax and regulate them and offer support to addicts, but this option needs political balls, and there are none in the UK. There is also the issue of poverty in South America, for example. Growing coca crops, refining and selling it is going to net you more cash than growing chia, soja or cotton.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

What a terrible article.
The only valid point is: Does Portugal have something good going on? Tough call if Portugal’s model is applicable to a country like Britain that is much more multicultural and socially fragmented.
The fallacy that we have had a “war on drugs” is ridiculous. I could regale you with stories, but here in Canada, short of killing or trying to kill someone, we hardly send anyone to jail anymore. A local drug dealer who threatened an associate with a gun was released on his own recognizance, with an agreement to appear later. He subsequently shot two people and led the police on a dangerous (for them and the community) manhunt. The idea that people get thrown in jail for having a bit of coke in their pocket, or a few joints, is ridiculous and inaccurate. It is this kind of meme that maintains the left wing “if only we were nicer to people, then nobody would use drugs”.
Here in Canada, we have been on a 25 year treadmill of “harm reduction”. The whole time we have been doing it, overdose deaths and substance abuse related societal harms have increased. And yet the answer is still “we need to do more harm reduction”. The proponents of harm reduction need to read about the Peltzman effect.
I am always amazed that the left wing question for these type of problems is always “What is society/the government doing wrong/not spending enough money on!?”. Perhaps the useful question is why do so many people abuse drugs now. Maybe the god-shaped hole in our hearts? Maybe not having to get up and milk cows at 5AM every morning? Maybe having no compelling reason to be a productive and functional member of society? So many profound and important issues are at the heart of substance abuse, and none are approached when we boil the solution down to lowering the barriers to drug use, and making it “safer”.

John Barclay
John Barclay
2 years ago

The article neglects to mention that the stigma associated with being a drug user has been removed by our liberal (probably) drug using elites. This is a contributor to increased drug usage.

So how about the government mandating employers carry out random drug tests in the workplace? How about employment being conditional upon a “clean” result. A bit like a covid test. Think that might have an effect on casual users who think it’s cool to snort cocaine or smoke a joint?

By all means give serious addicts help and don’t criminalise people who really need help, but unless being a user has a serious stigma and real world consequences, you’re not fighting a war at all, so you can’t say it’s been lost.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Barclay
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

“So how about the government mandating employers carry out random drug tests in the workplace?”

In China 80% of the business are government owned, so the distinction between public/private is blurred – this is not true in the West – the private employers are NOT police, policing is NOT their job. You want an ugly world where all are monitoring and monitored, a society where being a Rat is part of one’s duty.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Absurd. Drug use, especially heroin and other opiates, still carries a considerable social cost. Realistically, how many people do you know who are open about their heroin use in the workplace, or indeed any illegal substance?

If you wish to live in a society where your employer takes a blood test daily, then you’re entitled to your opinion. I shall leave it at that.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Many industries, heavy equipment users for example, already mandate drug tests and have done for decades.

No government intervention required.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
2 years ago

There is a big financial incentive to produce, export and sell narcotics in the UK. You can remove this incentive either by (1) l*quidating the growers, cartels, dealers and the facilitators (this is not a desirable option for liberal politicians and military), or (2) you can legalise narcotics, tax and regulate them and offer support to addicts, but this option needs political backbone, and there are none in the UK. There is also the issue of poverty in South America, for example. Growing coca crops, refining and selling it is going to net you more cash than growing chia, soja or cotton.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
2 years ago

De-criminalisation may not necessarily provide the answers looking at America’s opioid crisis but a shift in policy is certainly worth exploring. Laws targeting distribution rather than possession make sense.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

Act like you know! The main reasons for GB govt preserving the criminal gangs at the top of the drug trade are as follows: 1. Money into the UK financial services industry. 2. Great way to keep the poor, surplus to the job market men of fighting age divided and weakened. 3. Gives the govt an armed and dangerous 5th column more flexible/leak proof than Mi5 & co 4. Allows politicians, the media, city high flyers access to the drugs they want without the risk of getting burned or arrested. As for ” violence, grooming, young recruits” ?? That’s no way to run any business, legal or otherwise and will end in bankruptcy and probably jail if its drugs. Sad thing is to quote Lisa Crystal Carver, Drugs Are Nice. (but you’ve got to remember to stop and reset) #slytherindisco #neverstopthemadness

Guy Johnson
Guy Johnson
2 years ago

Another example of the superiority of free market capitalism over state intervention.