We can often mistake drug law reform as being a simplistic issue, one in which we base arguments on the rights and wrongs of ingesting a drug. There’s a linear logic: a harmful substance should be kept as ‘illegal’ because, by doing so, it creates a layer of protection to society.
As cannabis reform takes hold across the globe, with four US states fully legalising and others – including Californians who will vote on the issue later in the year – preparing to grasp the nettle alongside positive reforms in Canada and Uruguay, we have to ask why the UK is moving backwards.
2016 has seen the UK introduce yet more legislation to deal with society’s convoluted relationship with drugs. The Psychoactive Substance Act has been hastily drawn up and is much criticised. This new chapter, which has the intention of banning ‘legal highs’, has meant we are failing fast in our attempts to shore up our already collapsing flood defences. Instead of following global trends to regulate traditional substances such as cannabis, we now look to ban everything
It may be a surprise to learn that a group of legal, police and criminal justice professionals champion the cause to reform our drug laws. Existing (but crumbling) drug laws are blunt and outdated pieces of legislation which were constructed at a time where political rhetoric gazumped evidence-based policy making. If there’s one thing we can perhaps agree upon is that it’s essential to base laws on the best available evidence.
LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) is comprised of personnel that have held positions such as undercover police officers, MI5, chief constables, army officers and a wide range of professionals working in the criminal justice system, all of whom advocate the complete overhaul of our drug laws in favour of regulated systems and social reform.
If we pose the question: do you wish to legalise drugs? The answer may well be an emotive ‘no’. But the question is based on logical fallacy. We really should be asking: would you like to see your friends and family criminalised for a substance of their choice? Would you hope to see the substance in question come from an ethical source, free from exploitation and domestic slave-trading? If your loved one was using a substance, do you hope for them to have a safer choice – a substance that’s been subject to regulations, including labelling, dosage advice, and access to testing to prove the purity? And perhaps most of all, where would you prefer your loved one to purchase the substance of their choosing? A street vendor, where connections to gangsters are inevitable, or from one who is subject to trading standards and could lose their license if they do not conform to those basic standards (and where taxes are paid)?
The basic aim of a punitive policy is to act as a deterrent. But we know that such a proposition is highly debatable. In the closing moments of the coalition government, the International Comparators report was released – the most notable finding being that there’s no relationship between the harshness of a country’s laws and the level of drug use. Drug laws do not prevent drug use.
So how do we become smarter on drugs as opposed to tougher on drugs?
The argument needs to be made that we should not frame or place undue emphasis on the drugs themselves, but more about the people who choose to consume them. Should someone who likes a drink have the privilege of being allowed over someone who likes to have a cannabis joint? Or likes a pill to dance with? When scientific analysis of drug harms does not marry up to the societal perception of drug harms, are we setting ourselves up for a fall by basing drug laws on a mirage?
All the while we do have discriminatory drug laws based on arbitrary harm perceptions then we are in danger of marginalising ethnic and vulnerable groups. It is a fact that black people, despite not using drugs any more than white people, will stand to get stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted at a significantly higher rate.
We also see other vulnerable groups, such as medical cannabis consumers, subject to house raids and placed in harm’s way from a Wild West drug market where they cannot seek protection from the police. And we must not forget those who have suffered abuse and mental illnesses who consume certain drugs to self-medicate – at a time where we’re looking to be more understanding to the plight of mental health, we’re effectively criminalising them.
Trying to enforce drug laws is like trying to catch smoke. As our undercover operatives within LEAP UK will attest, we really do hand over all power to organised crime which currently reaps profits from a global industry worth $320bn a year, and around £7bn to the UK.
The law of the street is unforgiving and it’s a climate that’s only going to hot up – we’re wilfully sending our loved ones into this world whether they consume ‘illegal’ drugs or not. With each layer of prohibition, just as with 1920s America, a new breed of criminality is born and ready to fight for territory. It’s time we follow evidence and get smarter on drugs.
Jason is executive director of LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). The aim of LEAP is to 'reduce the unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs'