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Theresa May: The New UK Leader’s Drug Policy

Theresa May is set to become prime minister of the United Kingdom tomorrow. While serving as home secretary, May has supported a prohibitionist approach to drugs, and has overseen the annual number of drug deaths rising to its highest level since 1993.

In 2010, Theresa May was appointed as home secretary, a cabinet position which involves leading the implementation of the government’s drug policies. In a 2011 letter sent to Release, the national centre of drug expertise, May declared a commitment to an “evidence based” approach to help “dependent users come off drugs for good”. In 2012, in a review of the Government’s drug strategy, May outlined plans to "protect the public from the harms that drugs can cause to individuals, their families and society as a whole". Unfortunately, her rhetoric did not match up with results.

In 2014, two years after May’s vow to protect the public, the number of drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales rose to 3,346; representing a 28 per cent rise since 2012.

Converse to her claims, many of the drug policies implemented during her tenure were far from “evidence based”. For example, in 2014, she banned the production, sale, and possession of khat, a herbal mixture and mild stimulant, despite stiff opposition from scientific bodies.

The Advisory Council on the Misuses of Drugs (ACMD) reported that "khat has no direct causal link to adverse medical effects", and that its prohibition would be “inappropriate and disproportionate”. Despite this guidance, May pursued the khat ban, telling Parliament that it was needed to "protect vulnerable members of our communities". In her attempt to protect people, she pushed a £13.8 million industry into the criminal market, and threatened those who continued to distribute khat with up to 14 year imprisonment.

The khat ban was, however, not the final time that Theresa May created a lucrative criminal market in the UK. Between 2010 and 2015, the Government enacted legislation to ban more than 350 substances from being produced or sold, the Telegraph reported.

Then came the pièce de résistance of her drug policy approach, which was remarkably innovative; she banned almost everything. Even drugs that hadn’t been invented yet.

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, as TalkingDrugs reported in May, banned the production and supply of anything that "is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it". The law is aimed at prohibiting new psychoactive substances, sometimes referred to as “legal highs”, though the wording of the legislation is so vague that numerous exemptions had to be added – including for alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

Professor David Nutt, former chair of the ACMD, decried the all-encompassing ban for simply pushing sales out of shops, rather than helping reduce the harms of new psychoactive substances. “I predict that in a few years, the data on the impact of this act will reveal […] more use from the black market and internet supplies, and more drug-related deaths”, Nutt forewarned.

So what drug policies can we expect under Prime Minister Theresa May? If she selects a home secretary who mirrors her approach, then the numbers of people criminalised for simple drugs possession annually will remain around the 60,000-70,000 mark. Drugs will also continue to constitute the majority of stop and searches, despite this police practice being utterly futile. And, until she genuinely commits to her alleged desire for an evidence based approach, we may see a continuation of rising numbers of drug deaths.

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