The House of Commons will today debate whether to rethink the war on drugs. While it is only a backbench business debate, and is therefore not binding, it still represents a step towards reviewing the UK’s drug laws. There is a simple reason why the UK’s drug policy is so expensive and ineffective: the law is so old. Policy is still dictated by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, signed into law shortly after the 1971 UN Convention on Drugs. In 43 years since, the approach has failed catastrophically.
Dr Hans-Christian Raabe, who was removed from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after one month, this week wrote two rather provocative articles on the Conservative Woman website. Raabe’s main argument is that a better, “alternative approach to the drug problem” would be to create a “drug-free society”. Punitive, zero-tolerance, abstinence-based approaches have been the dominant drug policy model in most parts of the world for over half a century now – and they haven’t worked. They've caused a great deal of harm and haven’t really stopped people taking drugs.
There is no reliable evidence that tougher criminal sanctions deter drug use or offending. On the contrary, criminalisation worsens the health and wellbeing of drug users, increases risk behaviours, drives the spread of HIV, encourages other crime and discourages drug users from seeking treatment. A report by Australia21, Alternatives to Prohibition, subtitled Illicit drugs: how we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, sets out the lessons learnt about the failed war on drugs from other countries, especially Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal.