August 10, 2021 - 4:38pm

In The Times today, former Conservative Party leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague proffers the opinion that “decriminalising drugs is the only way forward” and that we should “follow Portugal in treating addiction primarily as a health problem.” In the article, Hague praises the country’s approach to drugs — decriminalising use as far back as 2001 — and repeats a number of well-worn mantras relating to how the Portuguese approach could be applied in the UK also. There are a number of problems with this argument, however. 

Firstly, Hague fails to note any downsides in the Portuguese approach. For instance, since Portugal decriminalised drug use back 20 years ago, there has been a huge increase in hospitalisations related to cannabis-related psychotic disorders. This represents not only a sharp rise in the burden placed on public services but also a great deal of human suffering. Any argument that we adopt a Portuguese-style approach to drugs should contend with this fact, but Hague ignores it completely. 

Though the former Tory leader is right to mention the benefits of Portugal’s increased investment in treatment services, he devotes many more words of his piece to decriminalisation:

Portugal has not legalised drugs and still punishes drug-trafficking. But after decriminalisation, all major indicators in a variety of studies have improved, including an 18 per cent fall in the total costs to society after 11 years. By 2010, the number of drug offenders sent to criminal courts had halved. Less law enforcement work will have helped to pay for better treatments. Might this not be worth a try?
- William Hague, The Times

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of evidence on whether decriminalisation in and of itself improves the outcomes for drug users and society at large. Even the liberal New York Times recognises that. And the danger is that the decriminalisation debate becomes a distraction from more tangible benefits. Politicians should be focusing on expanding substance-use disorder treatment, but have shown no interest in doing so. More galling is that Hague is happy to reference Dame Professor Carol Black’s recent independent review into this country’s drug approach, but neglects to mention that she also highlighted that service provision for people with substance-misuse disorders has shrunk considerably during the last eight years, a period in which his party has been in government. 

In truth, the decriminalisation of drugs would not be sufficient to sever the link between drugs and the criminal justice system — there would still be drug traffickers and black markets to contend with either way. As Fordham University professor John Pfaff has pointed out: “Portugal’s decriminalization law is actually the same sort of law that the United States had during Prohibition in the 1920s. Drinking alcohol was never illegal during Prohibition; only its manufacture, transport and sale were. Portugal only decriminalized for drugs what Prohibition never made illegal for alcohol, and what was illegal for alcohol under Prohibition remains illegal in Portugal for drugs.”

The key problem with Hague’s piece is that it presents only a partial picture of what has happened in Portugal. He says that we should treat the UK’s drug scourge as a health, not a crime, problem — yet we already treat substance misuse disorders as a health-related problem in this country. It’s far easier for a politician to recommend liberalisation than to accept that the most humane response is to increase spending on public services.

Peter Hurst is a psychiatric nurse and political blogger based in Liverpool. He tweets @Post_Liberal

Peter Hurst is a psychiatric nurse and political blogger based in Liverpool.