Rethinking UK’s antidrug law—towards decriminalization of drug use?

Rethinking UK’s antidrug law—towards decriminalization of drug use?

The issue of illegal drug has been a growing concern in many countries; given the globalization and the advancement of technology have increased the sophistication of such illicit activities. With many historical antidrug laws failing to produce desirable results, countries are prompting for a more drastic and radical paradigm shifts in order to tackle this issue. British’s 43 years old antidrug policy is currently in a tough spot, when the recent report released by the Home Office of United Kingdom concludes that tough anti-drugs laws do not work; causing a great debate in the parliament. From the study of drug use from multiple countries, it is found that heavy criminal punishment on drug users do not affect the rate of drug use in a country.[1]  Norman Baker, Home Office minister calls for radical change to drug laws as he supports on pursuing “a balanced, evidence-based approach” to tackling drug use problems.[2] However, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted the government’s antidrug policy is working fine[3]; as long downward trend on the number of drug users in England has been observed.[4] Nonetheless, countries around the world have been fighting the war on drugs with different approaches, from the decriminalization of all drugs in Portugal to the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado and Washington in US. These new approaches towards handling drugs consumption has produced mixed results, creating reasonable doubts on the effectiveness and relevancy of UK’s current antidrug policy. Decriminalization is differs from legalization although it involves the abolition of criminal charges for certain acts, monetary penalties and regulated permits still applicable. As such, it is argued for the possible reform of UK’s antidrug law towards decriminalization of drug, especially on cannabis decriminalization due to the apparent benefits.

The preposition for drug policy reform implying the current policy is ineffective, or even counterproductive to addresses the underlying problems. Goode argued that the punitive regulation that criminalizes drug abuse ensue the illegal drugs remain expensive.[5] Meanwhile, criminalizing drugs do not deter rate of drug uses, thus the demands for drugs remain constant and inelastic. Such potentially increase the number of illicit organizations to exploit the illegal drugs market as it is a profitable business. Thereby, it is argued that prohibitive policy is futile in the sense it did not work in the way intended. Besides, Thronton claimed that the potency of prohibited substance used will increase with tougher law enforcement policy. In the other word, drug pushers prefer for hard drugs (cracks, methamphetamine, etc.) with stronger potency rather than soft drugs (cannabis, etc.) as they have a higher profit margins.[6] By decriminalizing certain drugs and offering alternative assess to drugs via government controlled organizations could potentially reduce drug-related crime and violence. Police Chief Mike Barton also supports the decriminalization of drugs as he argued that it will substantially affects the income stream of crime gangs, making it a more effective way to tackle the supply chain.[7]

On the other hand, New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) marketed as the alternatives to banned drugs, are largely unregulated and posed as a growing health threat in UK. Drug users have opted for “legal highs” for easy way out as NPS are perceived as legal, safe, and it is widely available. These “legal highs” are found to contain controlled substance and likely to be “more harmful than the substances they are designed to mimic”.[8] With given the current legislation cannot provide a concrete ban on these items, UK government seeks to apply temporary class drugs ban to crackdown on NPS.[9] Nonetheless, research has found that prohibition based-system is succumbing to the overwhelming variety of NPS. As it is argued that prohibition promotes the illicit market to be more creative in developing new drugs with new chemical variations that are not banned.[10] Evidently, repressive drug policy could not solve the drug problems, but indirectly creates more.

Nonetheless, the advocacy of decriminalizing drugs should be in par with the principle of harm reduction. Therefore, Barton believed that drugs should not be freely available but to be controlled by National Health Service (NHS), allowing registered drug addicts use drugs in controlled environment.[11] Such, could potentially bring drug-related health risks into control, especially on blood transmittable diseases and drug overdose-induced death. From a study, it is found that drug consumption rooms (DCR) facilities in Canada are found to be a cost-effective public health measure, with 1 to 5.12 ratios benefit returns.[12]  In Portugal, the decriminalization of drugs has contributed to significant reduces in number of new HIV and AIDs cases among drug abusers.[13]Meanwhile, the number of deaths related to drug misuse in UK (in 2013) has increased by a staggering 21% (1,636 to 1,957) when compared to previous year.[14] Thereby, it is believed that the decriminalization of drugs certainly addresses the health concerns arises from drug misuses, encourages drug addicts to seek for treatment and breaking the chain of drug addiction. Subsequently, it will reduce the number of drug-related death in UK.

However, the reform of antidrug policy towards decriminalization of all drugs in UK at the current state might not be a viable option given such practice is still at the precocious stage in many countries around the globe. Certainly, the reform requires to challenges the social taboos in UK. Currently, Portugal is the only country which has decriminalized possession of all drugs (within certain threshold amount) and replaces with dissuasion commissions as a method to reduce drug use overall.[15]  Nonetheless, there has been a growing support suggesting UK’s drug policy reform towards decriminalization of certain soft drugs such as cannabis. From a survey, 52% of British support the introduction of Colorado’s and Washington’s way of cannabis scheme in UK.[16]  Of all drugs, up to 88% of Britons believed that cannabis should be either legalized or decriminalized, with magic mushrooms ranked second (22%) and LSD (16%) as third on the list. Besides, when research found that use of cannabis has attributed to zero death, while more than 37,000 deaths from alcohol use annually in US; undoubtedly the public health risk of cannabis use is benign as compared to alcohol.

In UK, cannabis is currently listed as Class B drug, unlicensed possession, growing, distributing or selling cannabis are illegal (drug law). In a 2014 survey, possession of cannabis contributed to up to 67 % of UK police recorded drug offences.[17] Noting a staggering amount of police’s workload can be reduced dearly if cannabis possession for personal use is decriminalized. Between the years 2004 to 2009, cannabis was momentarily reclassified to a class C drug (less harmful). During the reclassification period, the arrests for cannabis possession in the first year had reduced by one third. Such momentary change had saved the UK’s criminal justice system nearly a lump sum of 200,000 police hours.[18] The cannabis decriminalization measures in US also found to be significantly decreased the law enforcement costs.[19]Similarly, Akinson and McDonald argued that liberalization does not increase the rate of cannabis while the criminalization of all drugs is generally a costly and ineffective deterrent to drug users.[20] On the other hand, a study in US has found that the lacking of cannabis decriminalization could encourage the greater use of other more potent and harmful drugs.[21]  Therefore, cannabis decriminalization in UK is welcomed in such it allows the shifting of target criminal offenders from drug users to drug pushers and decreases the rate of hard drug use. In such, law enforcement’s resources can be properly utilized by diverting to other more severe offences that involves harder drugs or NPS.

Thereupon, as the general punitive approach has evidently failed to fight the war on drugs, many countries have fought with alternative policy. Certainly, decriminalization is not a single proposal. Drug decriminalization comes with continuum of degrees of regulations and availability. Certainly, the implementation of drug decriminalization in UK is still a viable subject for debate.  But with the rising of empirical evidences suggesting the positive outcomes from the drug decriminalization and heated criticisms on the current policy, the non-penal policy has arguably becomes more favorable and appealing. Nevertheless, many ideological and political considerations still underlie the issue of drug decriminalization in UK. Therefore, the debate on reform should based-on empirical grounds, devising towards a more progressive and sensible strategy in this dynamic times.

Bibliography

Andresen, Martin A. and Boyd, Neil. “A cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis of                             Vancouver’s supervised injection facility.” International Journal of Drug Policy,                            (2009).  doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.03.004.

“Alan Travis, home affairs editor Ministers look at new solution to legal highs.” The Guardian,                 last modified December 12, 2013,                                                                                                            http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/dec/12/ministers-new-solution-legal-highs.

Atkinson, Lynn and McDonald, David. “Cannabis, the Law and Social Impacts in                                                Australia.” Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (1995), 48.

Baker, Norman. Drugs: International Comparators. United Kingdom: Home Office, 2014, 52.

“Cannabis Reclassification – Reference: Stat002/2005 (Press release).” United Kingdom: Home                office. Last modified Jan 28, 2005.

Christie, Paul, Ali, Robert and Drug and Alcohol Services Council (S. Aust.), “The            Impact of Cannabis Decriminalisation in Australia and the United States.”                  Journal of Public Health Policy (2000) 21: 157-186.

“Drug Laws,” United Kingdom: Home Office.  Assessed November 10, 2014.                                           https://www.gov.uk/penalties-drug-possession-dealing.

Goode, Erich. Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate. United States: W.H.             Freeman  & Company, 1997.

Hughes, Caitlin Elizabeth and Stevens, Alex. “What can we learn from the Portuguese                              Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs?”  British Journal of Criminology, (2010).                                    doi: 10.1093/bjc/azq038

Mann, Jim. “British drugs survey 2014: drug use is rising in the UK – but we’re not addicted,”                  The Guardian. Last modified October 5, 2014.                                                                                         http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/05/-sp-drug-use-is-rising-in-the-uk-but         ­were-not-addicted

Mark Thornton, “Prohibition’s Failure: Lessons for Today.” United States: USA Today. Last                    modified March 1992. 70.

“Mike Barton, Police Chief, Says UK Should Decriminalize Drugs Because Drug War Is                         Failing,” Evening Standard Huffington Post, last November 29, 2013.                                               http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/29/mike-barton-uk-drug-                                                  decriminalization_n_4012326.html

Model, K.. “The effect of marijuana decriminalization on hospital emergency room episodes:                    1975-1978.” Journal of the American Statistical Association (1993), 88: 737-747.

Press Association. “Drugs policy is working- Cameron.”Daily Mail UK. Last modified October               31, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-2813447/Drug-policy-no-impact                       -use.html

“Statistical Report: Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending March 2014”. Office for National              Statistics. Assessed August 8, 2014. 92.

[1]. Norman Baker, Drugs: International Comparators. (UK: Home Office, 2014), 52.

[2]. Ibid., 4.

[3]. Press Association. “Drugs policy is working- Cameron.”

Daily Mail UK, last modified October 31 2014,  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-2813447/Drug-policy-no-impact-use.html

[4]. Norman Baker, Drugs: International Comparators. (UK: Home Office, 2014), 4.

[5]. Erich Goode. Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate. (US: W.H. Freeman  & Company, 1997). Chapter 6.

[6]. Mark Thornton, “Prohibition’s Failure: Lessons for Today.” (US: USA Today, March 1992). 70.

[7]. “Mike Barton, Police Chief, Says UK Should Decriminalize Drugs Because Drug War Is Failing,” Evening Standard Huffington Post, last November 29, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/29/mike-barton-uk-drug-decriminalization_n_4012326.html

[8]. Norman Baker, Drugs: International Comparators. (UK: Home Office, 2014), 36.

[9]. “Drug Laws,” United Kingdom Home Office, assessed November 10, 2014, https://www.gov.uk/penalties-drug-possession-dealing.

[10]. “Alan Travis, home affairs editor Ministers look at new solution to legal highs.”  The Guardian, last modified December 12 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/dec/12/ministers-new-solution-legal-highs.

[11]. “Mike Barton, Police Chief, Says UK Should Decriminalize Drugs Because Drug War Is Failing,” Evening Standard Huffington Post, last November 29, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/29/mike-barton-uk-drug-decriminalization_n_4012326.html

[12]. Martin A. Andresen and Neil Boyd , “A cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis of Vancouver’s supervised injection facility.” International Journal of Drug Policy, 2009.  doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.03.004.

[13]. Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens, “What can we learn from the Portuguese Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs?”  British Journal of Criminology (2010). doi: 10.1093/bjc/azq038

[14]. Norman Baker, Drugs: International Comparators. (UK: Home Office, 2014), 9.

[15]. Ibid., 47.

[16]. Jim Mann, “British drugs survey 2014: drug use is rising in the UK – but we’re not addicted,” The Guardian, last modified October 5 2014.  http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/05/-sp-drug-use-is-rising-in-the-uk-but-were-not-addicted

[17]. “Statistical Report: Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending March 2014”. Office for National Statistics,  assessed  August 8 2014. 92

[18]. “Cannabis Reclassification – Reference: Stat002/2005 (Press release).” Home office, last modified Jan 28 2005.

[19]. Paul Christie, Robert Ali ,and Drug and Alcohol Services Council (S. Aust.), “The Impact of Cannabis Decriminalisation in Australia and the United States.” Journal of Public Health Policy (2000) 21: 157-186.

[20]. Lynn Atkinson and David McDonald, “Cannabis, the Law and Social Impacts in  Australia.” Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice(1995), 48.

[21]. K. Model. “The effect of marijuana decriminalization on hospital emergency room episodes: 1975-1978.” Journal of the American Statistical Association (1993), 88: 737-747.

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