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Theresa May Calls for Continued “War against Drugs”, Despite Her Own Research Indicating its Failure

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to continue fighting the country’s war on drugs, despite the approach having contributed to the country’s highest rate of drug-related deaths on record, and exorbitant financial costs.

"It is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs," May announced at a prime minister’s questions session on November 22, citing “the incredible damage [drugs] can do to families and the individuals concerned”.

In the past five years of punitive drug policies under Conservative rule, there has been a 44 per cent increase in drug-related deaths in England and Wales, including a staggering 109 per cent rise in heroin/morphine deaths during the same period. In 2016, the number of drug-related deaths hit the highest figure on record, with drug misuse deaths now outnumbering road traffic fatalities.

May had been responding to a question from Crispin Blunt MP on whether she would look at evidence “from the US on the legalisation and regulation of cannabis markets there, as well as decriminalisation [of drug possession] in Portugal and elsewhere".

Bizarrely, she justified her approach to parliamentarians by referring to research undertaken by the Home Office, when she served as Home Secretary, which investigated and compared how different countries approached drug policy. What the prime minister failed to mention is that this report found there to be “[no] obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

A more recent publication, the government’s evaluation of its own drug strategy, yet again found that drug law enforcement has “little impact on availability”, and that punitive policies actually worsen problems that they supposedly intend to solve by bringing “potential unintended consequences including unemployment and harm to families".

The horrific social harms wrought by the UK’s war on drugs – from the criminalisation of over 40,000 people a year for drug possession, to the disproportionate targeting of black people and young adults in drugs policing – are compounded by the huge financial cost of drug law enforcement: around £1.6 billion annually. This enormous figure is particularly significant as May’s prohibitionist declaration coincided with the UK’s economic growth forecast plummeting, and within the context of public services facing severe budget cuts.

Later in the afternoon of November 22, a parliamentary debate took place on how policies can best respond to problematic drug use, with MPs from several parties suggesting evidence-based alternatives to Theresa May’s war on drugs.

Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, said that we must “accept across our country the principle of safer drug consumption rooms (DCRs) [which] are already saving lives in eight European countries and in Canada and Australia, [and are] endorsed by the British Medical Association.” Ronnie Cowan, of the Scottish National Party, spoke of the importance of providing central government funding to support heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) – something endorsed by the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but ignored by the government itself.

Sharon Hodgson, of Labour, pointed to "drug rehabilitation services being closed and budgets to tackle drug abuse cut, all against a backdrop of an NHS under significant pressure" as contributing factors to rising drug-related harms and deaths. John Howell, a Conservative, described how he was "most impressed" by information sent to him by Release – the UK's centre of expertise on drugs and drug law – which argued for DCRs, HAT, and a range of other public health measures that could reduce the harms of drug use.

Crispin Blunt, another Conservative MP, said that "the UK could have a royal commission to make evidence-based policy recommendations free of politicians’ trite response, 'Drugs are bad; they must be banned'".

Backing for drug policies rooted in public health and compassion appears to be growing among members of all main parties. However, the prime minister’s unwavering support for perpetuating the government’s failed “war against drugs” suggests that progressive reform is unlikely to come from the top anytime soon.

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