The Case for Drug Reform in the UK

A recent report by campaign group Transform has made waves for its bold new proposal, making the case for radical drug reform in the UK. The new book, How to Regulate Stimulants: A Practical Guide asks you to imagine a world in which drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines are available for single use purchase at state run pharmacies. In this reimagined world, drugs would be sold in plain packaging with health warnings clearly displayed. Instead of calling a friend of a friend and getting into a dodgy car on a side street, your supplier would be the state. Like alcohol and tobacco, sales would be restricted to over 18s [1]. The state would have a monopoly on drug supply, and profits would be minimised.

On the surface, this seems to be the far-fetched daydreaming of a progressive activist group. However, when you consider the consequences of our current drug laws, it is evident that something must change. The House of Commons own Health and Social Care Committee’s 2019 report on drug policy emphasised the dire need to place harm reduction at the forefront of any drugs policy. Transform’s proposals do not seem so radical when you consider that the committee supports ‘consultation on decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use, by changing it from a criminal offence to a civil matter’ [2].

Drug deaths in the UK are rising, as are prison populations: Deaths have increased by 16% from 2017 to 2019. Drug offences are the third highest offence category of inmates and half of all prisons are overcrowded [3]. The law is placing a disproportionate burden on the criminal justice system to deal with what is a public health matter. The justice system even punishes BAME people at a far higher rate than their white counterparts. Those from minority ethnic groups are 1.5 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offences despite the fact that white people are more likely to use drugs [4]. Structural racism is thriving in this current environment of criminalisation.

So what is the law? It is currently illegal to take drugs, carry drugs, make drugs and supply drugs, with the potential sentence increasing by class of the substance, up to life. With such a gap between current policy and what Transform recommends, how would such a radical shift in the law work?

Well, while it might be a bit far-fetched to think that we can expect over the counter cocaine anytime soon, one country may provide a more realistic example; Portugal. Portugal is cited in the Health and Social Care Committee’s 2019 report as a model the Government should consider emulating in developing a comprehensive, people-led approach. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the consumption of all drugs. While selling and supplying are still illegal, personal possession is treated as a health problem. Users are sent to a local commission to gain access to treatment services, not prison. The best part is that it is working. The incarceration of drug violators has halved, HIV and transmission of other diseases has decreased, and more people have entered treatment [5].

So why can’t we do the same here? With a House of Commons committee on side, a clear way forward set out by Transform and an example from a fellow western nation and ally to follow, what’s stopping us? In short, the Home Office refuses to consider the proposal, or in fact, any change to the law. When responding to being asked whether there was any thought being given to reconsidering the law, a spokesperson said, ‘absolutely not’, and that the Government is not even contemplating legalising cannabis ‘because it is detrimental to health and mental health’ [6]. This commitment to remain ignorant of the facts is unsurprising. While we can’t expect to be purchasing state supplied drugs anytime soon, we do know that there are better alternatives out there. Alternatives that put the health of people at the forefront, reduce prison populations and go some of the way in addressing the stark disparity in BAME group drug incarceration rates. Whatever your views on drug use, it is clear that the current policy is failing and change is needed.




[1] Transform: Drug Policy Foundation, 2020, How to Regulate Stimulants: A Practical Guide.

[2] House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, 2019, Drugs Policy, (HC 2019-143).

[3] Sturge, Georgina, 2020, UK Prison Population Statistics, 'House of Commons Library', CBP-04334.

[4] Shiner, Michael, Carre, Zoe, Delsol, Rebekah and Eastwood, Niamh, 2018, The Colour of Injustice: ‘Race’. Drugs and Law Enforcement in England and Wales, London: Release.

[5] Bajekal, Naina, 2018, ‘Want to Win the War on Drugs? Portugal Might Have the Answers,’ Time, Vol 192, No 5.

[6] Bowcott, Owen and Perraudin, Frances, 2020, ‘BAME Offenders ‘Far More Likely Than Others’ to be Jailed for Drug Offences’, The Guardian.