It’s official: the War on Drugs is a complete failure

Sam Woolfe

The debate over the legalisation of drugs is controversial. But for the first time, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has announced that the War on Drugs has failed. The article, co-authored by BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Goodle, covers both the UK and the global situation. And it could serve to disrupt the status quo.

A short history of the UK’s drug war

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 came into full effect in 1973. It aims to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs by imposing a complete ban on the possession, supply, sale, manufacture, import and export of such drugs.

This act also set up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which makes recommendations to the government on the control and scheduling of certain drugs. The ACMD is sponsored by the Home Office, which makes its view on drugs very clear, although apparently sometimes lazily.

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The scheduling of these controlled substances has not changed much over time. In 2004, Home Secretary David Blunkett did reclassify cannabis from a Class B to a Class C (less harmful) controlled substance. But in 2009, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith returned cannabis to its Class B status, which also includes amphetamines (e.g. ‘speed’).

The Class A (most harmful) drugs have stayed the same since 1973. These include heroin, cocaine, MDMA (‘ecstasy’), methamphetamine, mescaline, LSD, DMT and psilocybin (‘magic’) mushrooms. Before getting onto issues with the ACMD classifications, let’s look at why the BMJ believes the drug war has failed.

The war has failed to achieve its aims

BMJ authors argue that the War on Drugs in general has failed to achieve the aim of reducing drug misuse. Also, they say that prohibition has had many negative repercussions. The report highlights some key points:

  • People have always consumed psychoactive substances, risking harm.
  • 1 in 20 adults worldwide took an illegal drug such as cannabis or cocaine in 2014.
  • A quarter of 15-year-olds in the UK have taken an illegal drug of unknown quality and potency.
  • Countries around the world have criminalised producers, traffickers, dealers and users at an annual cost of at least $100bn.
  • The War on Drugs disproportionately affects ethnic minorities. In fact, racism is at the very heart of America’s drug war.
  • The drug war has resulted in an estimated 65,000-80,000 deaths in Mexico in the past decade. Meanwhile, the Philippines has seen 5,000 extrajudicial killings since July, after President Duterte’s call for vigilantism against drug dealers.
  • Mandatory prison sentences for even minor drug offences in the US has helped the country attain the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
  • Current drug policies impede research into the medical and therapeutic benefits of illicit drugs, including cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, MDMA, ketamine and ayahuasca (which contains DMT).
  • The BMJ says we need to prioritise treatment over punishment of drug users. After all, sharing of injection equipment has led to epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C. And only 1 in 6 people with a drug problem received treatment in 2014.

Not all drugs carry the same risks

The previous chair of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, was sacked a day after claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol.

Interestingly, Nutt based this conclusion on the kind of assessment that the ACMD should use to calculate a drug’s harmfulness, and therefore, its classification. In a paper published in 2010, Nutt used 16 criteria relating to the harmful effects of drugs. These criteria fell under broad categories such as physical harm, dependency, and social harms. Nutt found that alcohol is the most harmful drug. But, of course, it is also the most easy to obtain.

In any case, we can see that LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and ecstasy are some of the least harmful drugs. For example, Nutt’s scale of harmful drugs shows that LSD and mushrooms cause no harm to others. Yet, these drugs are Class A.

The UK needs an independent advisory body

The BMJ supports claims made by Nutt, and groups such as Transform Drug Policy Foundation (PDF), that policy must be evidence-based. The ACMD has been criticised for lacking a strong basis in evidence.

For example, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 removed the legal requirement for the ACMD to have scientists and experts on the panel. Also, the Commons Science and Technology Committee said that the present system of drug classification relies on historical assumptions, rather than scientific assessment.

Perhaps the UK needs an independent scientific body to advise the government on drug policy. Nutt believed so, at least. So after his sacking from the ACMD, he set up the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD). It provides evidence-based information on the effects of drugs and policy.

The only problem is that the ISCD doesn’t advise the government on drugs. The government won’t listen. But it’s worse than just deafening silence. Theresa May attempted to hide this kind of evidence from the public when she was Home Secretary.

Time to listen to the experts

The War on Drugs has clearly failed. Millions of people are suffering from drug-related problems and are not getting the health treatment that they desperately need. And there have been decades of wasteful law enforcement while drug use has actually been increasing. So it’s about time that the government listened to the experts, and based drug policy on evidence and ethics, instead of tradition and fear.

Get Involved!

– Support the ISCD, Transform and Drug Policy Alliance.

Featured image via West Midlands Police/Flickr

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