Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Drugs have long been the subject of heavily divisive debate and a polarising issue between those on the left and the right. Conservatives in the UK and Republicans in the US have traditionally taken a hard stance on drugs, pursuing policies of zero-tolerance and heavy criminalisation. The ‘war on drugs’ was a policy initiative launched by the Reagan administration that doubled down on the work of previous Republican President Richard Nixon. Reagan introduced mandatory minimum sentencing, with drug offenders facing life in prison for minor drug charges. This was an incredibly racialised policy, as the focus on crack cocaine, rather than powdered, disproportionally impacted BAME communities in poorer areas of major cities.
Drug charges in the US currently make up 65% of the prison population, with a further 20% under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime. In addition to this 76% of jailed inmates in the US who were charged with a drug related crime suffer from at least one mental health issue. Under the current system addiction is treated as a crime rather than an illness, so the resulting health issues are often left untreated. Studies have found that those incarcerated with a drug charge who go untreated in the penal system are significantly more likely to overdose and die upon release.
Whilst this issue is particularly prominent in the US, the UK is also facing a mounting drug crisis. The number of drug related deaths has doubled since 2012. Responsibility and funding have been delegated to local authorities, with the central government shirking obligation to those in need. The continued criminalisation of drugs stigmatises users and prevents them from being seen as fellow citizens who are in need. This creates a class of superiority assigned to some of the most vulnerable who need help from the state, rather than punishment. In addition to this, decriminalisation could wipe out the counterculture that has developed and change the societal perception of drugs. This counterculture, which started in the 1960s, promotes the secretive experimentation of psychoactive and psychedelic narcotics, which in some cases leads to genuine addiction. If you bring this counterculture out of the shadows and eliminate fears of prosecution, it would likely disappear. Portugal has supported drug decriminalisation for the past decade, and they have seen a huge decrease in the negative societal impacts from drug addiction.
However, as with any discussion around drugs, the debate around decriminalisation is not black and white. While Portugal has seen a decrease in drug related deaths and abuse rates, they have seen an increase in experimentation and casual drug use.
It is not fair to say that decriminalisation would be an immediate solution to the current drug crisis, as there is a massive infrastructure that would need to be created in order to properly carry out this policy. There would need to be a significant increase in drug-specialised welfare workers, and areas where addicts can safely inject also need to be created. Whilst a portion of this cost could come from the penal system as they would no longer house addicts or those held on a drug charge, there would have to be a near-complete re-appropriation of welfare budgets.
This article only scratches the surface of decriminalisation debate, as it is incredibly complex. It is something I can only encourage everyone to read into more as it is a policy area consistently ignored by our government, yet it impacts the lives of the most vulnerable every day.