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Expert Comment: Uruguay moves to legalise cannabis

086 Dr Joe Greener Tuesday 18 February 2014

As legislators in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington move closer to legalising cannabis, Lecturer in Social Work Dr Joe Greener looks at the potential implications for UK law.

Uruguay, Colorado and Washington are all close to legalising cannabis but should the UK follow suit? In the last month both the small South American country of Uruguay as well as two US states, Colarado and Washington, have declared their intentions to loosen current policies which ban and outlaw the sale of cannabis. Is this an opportunity for a rethink on the way the UK and the world control narcotics?

Many scholars have argued for a number of reasons that the prohibition policy, which came into being around the late 1960s in the UK, has failed. Firstly, drug use has remained continually high with significant proportions of people using a range of drugs despite illegalisation (about 12 million people in the UK admit to having tried an illegal substance in their lifetime). Secondly, the way that drug use has been policed has resulted in large proportions of the population ending up in prison. Drugscope estimate, for example, that half of all theft (shoplifting, burglary and so on) should be thought of as drugs related crime. It is often addicts trying to find a way to pay for their addiction. Beside this there have been a number of high profile drugs deaths from MDMA in the late 90s right through to meow meow more recently. A number of authors argue that many of these deaths are actually down to unsafe drugs or unsafe usage, meaning that they could be prevented if substances were more effectively controlled.

Looking at drug production and consumption from a global perspective it is evident that the global illegalisation of drugs has caused people in drug producing areas great misery (most notably in South America where coca plants are grown and Afghanistan where opium poppies are cultivated). In Peru, for example, farmers who are unable to get a fair price for legitimate crops such as cocoa, coffee or bananas are essentially forced to grow coca (the raw ingredient used in the production of cocaine) in order to secure a decent standard of living for their families. The American government funds the policing of this production and one common method is to poison whole tracts of agricultural land which are then left unavailable for any sort of cultivation for years after. These poor rural communities have also become the site of intense political conflict where organised crime cartels fight it out with the American funded anti-narcotic squads. The prohibition policies of the West have caused untold death, pollution, corruption and misery for many communities across the developing world.

No sensible person would deny the fact that recreational drug use in many cases has caused individuals and communities considerable harm. Yet it may be possible, through careful policy change, sometimes comprising of certain forms of legalisation, to reduce or even eliminate the harm associated with drug (mis) use. There are a number of examples of where such policies are already in place. Recently, the Warehouse Project, a 5000 capacity club/gig venue in Manchester began providing free testing of pills after a number of deaths from contaminated ecstasy tablets. In Switzerland heroin addicts, once they have developed a significant dependency, are prescribed heroin by health services. This is thought to have reduced the numbers of people selling heroin on the street and therefore leads to less people developing a dependency in the first place.

Speaking specifically of the UK context it is important to note that current policy has resulted in the criminalisation of many young people, particularly those from certain ethnic minority communities and with economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Guardian reported in 2010 that black people are six times more likely to be arrested than white people for drug offences and 11 times more likely to be imprisoned. Liverpool is arguably an excellent example. At a community meeting I attended in Toxteth after the 2011 riots many of the community leaders felt that the area was unfairly targeted for stop and search policies which inevitably has the effect of more drugs convictions. The current ‘war on drugs’ in the UK has resulted in the demonising, incarcerating and ultimately criminalising of many young people and disproportionately affects those from the poorest areas.

Importantly, this has not always been the case. Up until the late 1960s the UK had a largely medicalised notion of dealing with drug misuse (similar to the Swiss approach to heroin mentioned earlier). Known as the ‘British model’, the focus was on treating drug addicts by prescribing them with the substance that they were addicted to whilst simultaneously ensuring that they consumed the drug in the most medically safe way. At this time most heroin users were middle class, but as drug use has spread down the class hierarchy so has policy become more punitive and increasingly based on the principles of prohibition rather than treatment.

Any significant changes to drug policy in the UK are likely to cause furious debate. Nevertheless, following the example of Uruguay, Colorado and Washington, is it time to reconsider the way that drugs are controlled and the way that drugs users are treated? A unemotional and matter-of-fact debate is needed which is devoid of lobbying by the alcohol industry, disregards the input of the International Narcotics Control Board and focuses on the what the realities of drug use are in contemporary Britain.

It is my belief that it is time to change the way that we as a society deal with the issue of substance use and misuse. The combination of outright prohibition alongside the absence of a coherent treatment service has simply served to increase the vulnerability of drug users. Those with more serious addictions have essentially been left to fend for themselves, often by engaging in criminal behaviour (such as burglary or the most dangerous forms of sex work). Those who can be described as less serious users have been unnecessarily criminalised and in some cases died because drugs and drug taking is often made more dangerous due to its illegal status. We need to consider how policing, community services and the wider drugs policy can be reshaped so as to put the principles of harm reduction centre stage.

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