Backed by a former UN Secretary-General, ten former presidents, and two former prime ministers, the Global Commission on Drug Policy launched its 2017 report in London this January.


However, across the UK instead of leading political figures, a quiet coalition of local officials, public health campaigners and scattered MPs have been mounting a growing challenge to the UK’s inert drug laws.

The UK’s drugs policy is based on the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which has hardly been adjusted since. While health-based approaches to addiction become more common, and more nations regulate cannabis with the market, the UK’s drug laws strictly enforce illegality, with drugs divided into categories A, B, and C based on perceived harm (though this does not necessarily match medical opinion).

Opening a July parliamentary debate on drugs policy, Conservative MP Sarah Newton demonstrated current government support for the status quo, contending that: ‘the Government’s approach is working … drug misuse among adults and young people in England and Wales has reduced from 10.5% in 2005 to 8.4% in 2015-16’.

In this statistic, she is correct. However, this was driven almost entirely by a reduction in the 2000s of the number of young people consuming cannabis. Drug use for 16-59-year-olds as a whole, and the use of all drugs other than cannabis, has remained almost constant. Look further, and the status quo has not just been ineffective, but disastrous. By NHS records, drug-related hospital submissions have been on the rise, and both drug-related poisonings and deaths have increased by nearly 50 per cent in a decade. Compared to the European average, drug-related deaths are three times higher in the UK.

Facing the highest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded, and a sharp rise in HIV cases, Glasgow recently sought to open a supervised injection centre. The centre would have had medical staff providing sanitised needles to prevent diseases, information on treatment, advice, and if necessary care to prevent overdose deaths.

Though not a ‘cure all’, a review of academic literature found that injection centres provided modest declines in both overdose deaths and disease transmission. It also led to overdoses being immediately responded to on-site, greatly freeing up ambulance resources. Further, when introduced in Sydney, the popular night club district King’s Cross saw a decline in robberies and theft out of proportion with the decline in the rest of Sydney. Glasgow’s plans however have been sunk, as the Home Office contended that any such plan would be illegal, and that police would be expected to arrest any users there.

Though Glasgow’s plans were sunk, other organisations not beholden to the Home Office have been making their own reforms. To combat an almost six-fold increase in MDMA-related deaths in five years, not-for-profit The Loop have embarked on a highly publicised campaign of testing drug chemistry at music festivals and concerts. A 2016 festival pilot at two festivals met with success, 18 per cent of attendees who tested drugs with The Loop disposed of them upon learning their content was less than savoury. The organisation, along with Vice, and the Royal Society for Public Health, have launched the ‘Safe Sesh’ campaign to raise awareness of drugs as a health issue, and promote reform.

In Bristol, efforts to bring a similarly health-based approach are underway, with some changes already achieved thanks to local police. The BBC documentary ‘Drugsland’ brought particular attention to the city, showing that in contrast to the Home Office’s assertions, arrest-based policies are not the only ones practiced. Avon and Somerset Police’s Sergeant Chris Green revealed that, facing a growing problem and dwindling resources, they had to improvise. ‘We have got a drug education programme in Bristol. What that is about is when we stop people who are in possession of drugs, we don’t arrest them’. However, the usual Home Office sanctioned practice applies if an individual is caught possessing a second time.

The problems facing the city are reflected in Bristol’s own MP, Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire. She has advocated a health-based approach, including regulating markets not just for cannabis, as with a growing number of countries and regions, but also for ecstasy; so that, as with The Loop’s testing programme, people know precisely what they are consuming. She, a handful of Labour colleagues, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats (perhaps the most high-profile drug reformers on the national political stage) have tried to bring reform to Parliament. Indeed, in November Debbonaire tried to confront the Prime Minister on failing drugs policies, but was swiftly dodged.

While on the national stage reformers face stiff resistance, locally the UK’s inaugural public policy reform came from an unexpected source: Durham. Ron Hogg, who was elected for Labour in 2012, and again in 2016 as Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner, has been a long-time opponent of the war on drugs. Though not possessing any power to influence UK law, the Commissioner does control how police target crime in Durham. In 2015, in a meeting with pro-cannabis activists, Ron Hogg announced that the city’s police would no longer target small-scale users and growers (though, because they are unable to change the law, what is ‘small scale’ does not have a specific definition). Since then, Durham has become a centre of reform efforts in the UK: the city has hosted conferences on reform, and made significant policy publications challenging the status quo.

Despite these grassroots changes, one of the greatest hurdles to harm reduction and reform will not be the political centre, but the British public. 2016’s Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 65 per cent of adults thought it was never acceptable to use cannabis (74 per cent said it was acceptable to be drunk). Even in 20-to-24-year-olds, only 44 per cent said cannabis use was acceptable.

Due to lack of readily available historical surveys on drugs perceptions, it is difficult to assess changes in attitudes in the UK. The 2014 British Drugs Survey also found a well of resistance, albeit confused resistance. As many as 61 per cent of respondents said they oppose the legalisation or decriminalisation of any currently illegal substance. Perplexingly, 52 per cent said they support the introduction of a Colorado-style cannabis legalisation in the UK. These attitudes are in sharp contrast across the Atlantic, where nationwide support for cannabis is at a record-high 64 per cent.

The UK’s inert drugs policies are exacerbating mounting suffering, and for many politicians, and indeed, voters, there is little appetite for reform. But with opposition and localised advocacy popping up in more and more cities across the country, change may be on the way.