Clegg Still Adamant We Have Lost the War on Drugs

We forgot to cover this from earlier in the year but Nick Clegg is still adamant that the responsibility for drugs should be moved from the criminal justice system to the health care system. It’s a topic he’s long had controversial views on but he now also has the support of Richard Branson (no introduction needed) and James Hopkins of – an organisation offering natural therapy for conditions that often lead people to Class A or B drugs. The three of them wrote articles in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section.

Both men believe that the current system is both wasting money and failing:

Since the “war” was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, we have spent over £1tn trying to eradicate drugs from our societies. Yet the criminal market continues to grow, driving unimaginable levels of profit for organised crime. We devote vast police, criminal justice and military resources to the problem, including the incarceration of people on a historically unprecedented scale.

In many parts of the world, drug violence has become endemic. As Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, visits the UK, we should remember the estimated 100,000 people killed in Mexico alone since 2006. Yet tragically, the sum total of enforcement efforts against drug supply over the past 40 years has been zero. Efforts at reducing demand have been similarly fruitless. Here in the UK, a third of adults have taken illegal drugs and the gangs are doing a roaring trade. The problem simply isn’t going away.

Cleggy also points out that other countries are successfully rethinking their approach, whilst here in the UK we are being very stubborn about it, which he believes leads to tragic human consequences:

And yet we desperately need better solutions in this country. One in six children aged 11 to 15 is still taking drugs; 2,000 people die each year in drug-related incidents; the use of unregulated “legal highs” is rampant.

At the same time, the police are stopping and searching half a million people a year for possession of drugs, prosecutions of users are close to record levels, and prison cells are still used for people whose only crime is the possession of a substance to which they are addicted. This costs a lot of money, which could be better spent on treatment and on redoubling our efforts to disrupt supply. And it wrecks the lives of 70,000 people a year who receive a criminal record for possession and then find themselves unable to get a job.

As an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns. If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like.

All three of the men stress the point that the Lib Dems have been instrumental in pushing the Home Office to carry out research which proved that the current approach was ineffectual Hopkins in particular goes on to outline examples of successful policies from other countries:

So what is the alternative? For this, we should look to Portugal, which removed criminal penalties for drug possession in 2001. Portugal’s reforms have not – as many predicted – led to an increase in drug use. Instead, they have allowed resources to be redirected towards the treatment system, with dramatic reductions in addiction, HIV infections and drug-related deaths. Drugs remain illegal and socially unacceptable, as they should be, but drug users are dealt with through the civil rather than the criminal law. Anyone who is arrested for drug possession is immediately assessed and sent for treatment or education. If they fail to engage, they have to pay a fine.

The Portuguese system works, and on an issue as important as this, where lives are at stake, governments cannot afford to ignore the evidence. We should set up pilots to test and develop a British version of the Portuguese model. The evidence suggests it will be cheaper, more effective at reducing harm and would allow the police to focus their attention where it should be, on the criminal gangs that supply the drugs.

The full Guardian article is available here.