Is the War on Drugs a redundant battle?

News has arrived that safe injecting centres will be set up in Dublin, and Ireland’s drug minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, is pushing for the decimalisation of possession for personal use.  This move is part of a “radical cultural shift” in place to eradicate the culture of addict shaming. The injection rooms will be clinically controlled and will be there to protect users from harm.

In a meeting with the International Drug Policy Project, Ó Ríordáin said: “[As a drugs minister] you can do the simple, safe thing and continue with the ‘drugs are bad, just say no, stop taking them’ [line], or you can deal with the reality.”

The reality is that drugs users are often demonised and treated as criminals, sent to court rather than receiving the treatment they need. These are safe havens for addicts who have an illness, who shouldn’t be treated as rejects from society. The idea has been around for ages, and there are now over 90 centres in the world.  There are 31 facilities in the Netherlands and 24 in Germany alone. It doesn’t stop there, as centres are also open in Spain, Norway, Denmark, Luxenbourg, Switzerland and, soon to be, France.

Success of decriminalisation 

The popularity of these places means that they work. A Sydney based facility say they have prevented almost 5,000 overdoses with not one single death. 

The centre is also reducing needle waste, slashing ambulance call-outs by 80%, and sending over 10,380 referrals for drug addicts to get treatment, some of whom have never had treatment before.  They save public money, reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV and cut down crime.

It seems politicians like Ó Ríordáin are realising that criminalisation is continuing the cycle of drug taking and neglecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.  

Ireland is taking a very progressive view of the war on drugs, so why isn’t the UK doing the same?

In 2013, an Independent Drug Commission looked into the possibility of setting up an injecting room in Brighton. The plans supposedly hit into “legal problems” but some fingers point to the damaging publicity of the right-wing press calling it a “back door to legalisation”.

High-profile figures such as Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Russell brand sent an open letter to David Cameron in 2014, asking to decriminalise cannabis. Arresting users, says drug charity ‘Release’, creates harm and individuals are more likely to escape addiction if they aren’t in the criminal justice system. Also, if both soft and hard drugs are legal, users are likely to try both.  

Potential UK benefits 

Aside from the invaluable protection of addicts and necessary visibility of drug taking, decriminalisation could save the UK hundreds of millions of pounds. A leaked government report showed that the courts and police could save up to £200m a year if cannabis was regulated as tobacco is. The Home Office strongly opposed this, referring to evidence that cannabis harms people physical and mental health.

The fact of the matter is that illegal drug use and drug dealing takes place, and the majority of it goes unregulated. Sir William Patey referenced this problem; saying that it is impossible to stop Afghan farmers trading opium, so the only alternative is to limit demand for illegal drugs be creating a regulated market of them.

Opposition arguments

Opposition for legalising drug use in the UK remains quite strong. Arguments cite the commercialised industries of tobacco and alcohol, whose profits rely on addiction. Stop-smoking campaigns are everywhere, and demand remains high. However, anti-drug efforts are really expensive and have cost the UK £1tn since 1971. The criminal market continues to grow and so does the pressure on prisons, which are holding people for using a substance they are addicted to.

A third of adults have taken illegal drugs in the UK. This isn’t a war on a sub-section of society, but on a roaring trade. The UK has reacted by trying to ban legal highs, a dangerous trend that was borne out of the illegality of drugs. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 classifies drugs by their chemical compounds, which means that as soon as the government cracks down on one drug, they will be tweaked and revamped to something legal.

So as two new legal highs are identified in Europe every week, 2,000 people die in drug-related incidents each year, and 70,000 people receive a criminal record each year for possession, then unable to find a job.

Isn’t it time we accept that the War on drugs is failing?