Boris Johnson’s reforms to drugs policy will mean nothing “without radical overhaul”. That’s the warning from one campaign group – as the government looks set to shake up its approach to drug use. But will measures such as taking passports off people convicted under drug laws really improve the situation? Or is it harking back to the attitudes of the 1980s?
Drug use UK: a multibillion-pound issue
As PA reported, the government review into drugs comes off the back of an independent review by dame Carol Black. It estimated there were 300,000 opiate or crack users in England, and around one million people using cocaine per year. Meanwhile, drug poisoning deaths are at a record high, having increased by nearly 80% since 2012. Black’s review also determined the drugs market in the UK is worth £9.4bn a year. But it claimed that if health considerations, the cost of crime and societal impacts are combined, the total cost of illegal drugs is £19bn annually.
So, Johnson wants to change things. But his language on the issue seems draconian at best. He told the Sun that:
Drugs are driving a lot of misery and we can fix it. They’re not going to make you happier.
They’re not going to make you more successful. They’re not going to make you cooler. They’re bad news.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the government had turned the clock back four decades, returning to the time of kids TV show Grange Hill‘s “Just Say No” campaign:
But as one campaign group summed up, the “devil [is] in the detail” when it comes to Johnson’s proposals.
Blah, blah, blah?
The BBC reported that it understands the government has accepted 31 of Black’s 32 recommendations and will invest £700m over three years. The BBC noted that:
Measures will include a large focus on diversion, a tactic designed to remove drug users from the criminal justice system and get them into healthcare.
This includes court orders forcing people into recovery programmes as well as short prisons. This appears to be aimed at people using heroin and crack cocaine. But some parts of government policy are even tougher. Johnson told the Sun that regarding people using “lifestyle drugs”, presumably, for example, cocaine:
We need to look at new ways of penalising them. Things that will actually interfere with their lives.
So we will look at taking away their passports and driving licences.
We’re keeping nothing off the table.
PA reported that the government was also considering football-style travel bans, harsher sentences for drug dealers and measures to break up county lines gangs. This all feels like a criminal justice approach – not a health one. But behind closed doors, the BBC claimed the Tories are saying something different.
Drug reform: electioneering with people’s lives?
It noted that:
One source heavily involved in forming the review told the BBC “ministers have now accepted this [problem drug use] is a chronic health condition”.
However, they added that because of concerns over how that would be viewed by the public and Conservative voters, it was unlikely the government would want it to be the focus of the announcement.
So the government appears to be playing electioneering with drugs policy – and ultimately people’s lives. Campaign group Release Drugs said on Twitter that the government approach still didn’t include drug consumption rooms (DCRs). This is where people can take drugs in a controlled environment to try and get off them. It seems to have worked in other countries.:
Drug strategy launched next week,what we know so far:
⬆️ more funding, apparently £700m over three years
⬆️ more focus on diversion
❌ no DCRs
❌ no changes to legislation
Devil in the detail, increased funding vital after 10 years of cuts BUT…https://t.co/bTfQ9bKdWY
— Release Drugs (@Release_drugs) December 4, 2021
And it noted that:
Without radical overhaul of our approach to drugs the harms of prohibition will continue! We need
✅ safe supply
✅ housing first
And we must end the stigmatisation of ppl who use drugs & ppl who supply drugs.
— Release Drugs (@Release_drugs) December 4, 2021
The government will launch the plan properly next week. But whether or not, as Release Drugs said, the “harms of prohibition will continue” remains to be seen.
Featured image and additional reporting by PA
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