Why we should see drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one

Rebecca Wray

September 17, 2020

Priti Patel’s recent move to decriminalise “poppers” has bought with it hope for similar approaches to be taken towards other drugs. It is a step forward, but ultimately much more needs to be done to tackle the problems drugs are causing in Britain today.

A sensible move for the government would be to legalise, regulate, control and tax recreational soft drugs. However, with hard drugs, such as crack and opiates, a move to decriminalise with a large focus on rehabilitation would be a credible way forward.

Many advocates of strict drug laws argue that decriminalising equates to condoning. While this argument holds some weight, the claim fails to recognise Britain’s already dire state of drug abuse and addiction, where long-standing and strict drug laws have been tried and failed.

In 2018, there were 2,917 deaths related to poisoning by drug misuse, a 46 per cent rise since 2008. A new approach and a fresh attitude are desperately needed. We should be helping, not punishing, drug addicts.

Similarly to Portugal in the early 2000s, a large proportion of Britain’s drug problem lies with crack cocaine and opioids. An estimated 86 per cent of the UK’s drug-associated costs are related to crack and heroin. Abusers of these types of drugs (OCUs) have strong links to poverty, unlike recreational drugs, which on average tend to be used by a wider breadth of society.

With homelessness having increased by 165 per cent since 2010, it is probably unsurprising that those with little hope in life have increasingly turned to hard drugs as a means of escape. Without stability in their lives, even those who have been “punished and rehabilitated” by the existing penal system often relapse due to ineffective, underfunded and short treatment programmes. Although rehab schemes are available in prisons, the average time spent in custody is six weeks, far too short a time for people to make meaningful and effective changes to their habits.

A significant underlying issue here may be the nationwide housing crisis. However, this should not mean we ignore the effective failure of our current legislation on drugs. Due to the highly addictive nature of opioids and crack, the threat of prison does not work as an effective deterrent. We should be attempting to rehabilitate rather than punish, and the misuse of drugs should be treated as a public health issue.

Not only is it far more effective to rehabilitate, but it also has the potential to be cost-effective. According to Dame Carol Black’s independent drug review, Britain’s current strategy means that the costs of drugs to society is £19bn per annum. This amount includes the money spent incarcerating those of the UK’s prisoners convicted for drug-related crimes. A large proportion of this could be spent on rehabilitation, rather than prison sentences for those who need help.

Ultimately, punishing people for drug addiction does not help society. It does not effectively deter, it does not save lives, and it fuels a volatile and violent black market. Were such reforms to legalise and decriminalise drug use in the UK implemented, drug users would shoulder the social responsibilities themselves, whereas by consuming currently they fuel child exploitation and violence.

It is clear that despite current drug-related legislation, people will take drugs. Drug policies should reflect the practicalities of our situation. UK legislation has proved largely ineffective (as in most countries) at repressing the drugs market through outlawing. A pragmatic approach to this would be to legalise, educate, regulate and tax accordingly. Legalisation would allow for taxation and regulation to be implemented. The funding raised through taxation could be used to educate, similarly to the approach currently taken towards tobacco usage.

Regulation would empower drug users to know the purity of the substances they are taking, which would make use of such substances safer. It would lead to a reduction in the wide range of problems associated with the black market. The soft, recreational drug industry would function as a normal market and have access to a fair justice system.

The social struggles drugs bring will not be eliminated nor deterred by punishment. To effectively tackle these issues, the stigma around legalisation and decriminalisation needs to be dropped by both major parties. Legalising soft recreational drugs will empower users to make informed, safer choices, while not funding a black market built on crime. Decriminalising harder drugs will allow those dependent on them to get the help they so desperately need.

The war on drugs has failed. It’s high time we take a more pragmatic approach to drug addiction.


Written by Rebecca Wray

Rebecca Wray is a political commentator.


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