A Disease We Cannot Fight With Force

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A seventeen-year-old boy is swaying side to side at Leeds Festival to the deafening sound of music. His T-shirt is drenched from the continuous sweat caused through his energetic movements. The sun’s brightness is overwhelming and he covers his eyes in order to keep the main stage in sight. He gazes to his left and then his right, seeing some of his closest friends enjoying the music with him; it will be a memory that should last forever. Around him stand thousands of people with synchronised smiles; the usual animosity that is felt in such a large crowd is absent. How many times have you seen so many people together, connected and unified through joy? A mist of stress that is typical of human beings is released from the boy’s body and for one moment it is acceptable for him to forget all his worries. The drug of music is deep within his veins, but it is not the only thing. The 17-year-old boy, who has so many opportunities in the future and so many dreams, in his minute of pure contentment, falls to the floor. Amongst the atmosphere of jubilance he falls asleep. Excitement turns to horror and singing turns to screams, sadly the boy will never wake up.

The 17-year boy is now all but a statistic in the drug related death total, which stood above 3,300 in England and Wales in 2014 alone. The death of the teenager is a tragedy but, an avoidable one. The war on drugs through the threat of punishment and stigmatisation has failed. The marginalisation of drug users through defining them as criminals has not helped him. It is now time to make drug use a health related incident rather than a criminal one. I am not advocating for drug use, far from it, the modern world should be moving towards prevention and rehabilitation. The topic of drug use now has to be debated, rather than left as a taboo. In reality drug users are people with deeper issues. Issues that drugs seem to artificially mend, they compress some of the darkest parts of someone’s experiences and for this reason punishment can never work. Illegal drugs, whether directly in usage or indirectly through the onslaught of crime they create, have left to the ending of many teenagers’ lives; sadly this 17-year-old boy will not be the last. Their power to destroy families and communities is very real and cost taxpayers hugely particularly via the NHS and Police. The values of people need to be changed but this transition must start with a change in government policy. In a globalized world we forget about the smaller issues close to home, those that infiltrate our own communities and affect us in a very real and direct way. In naivety we assume that the threat of punishment by laws can stop the drug trade, in fact it’s helping it thrive and leading many vulnerable people down a dark path. The UK drug policy must change if we are to hope that future generations are not plagued by the same problem.

Before we illustrate how the system could be fixed, we must see how the current system is broken. Firstly the current system fails to deter people from recreational use. A Daily Mail report showed less than 1% of those caught in possession of illegal drugs were sent to prison (totalling 1,141) in 2013. In effect, possession of drugs has unofficially been decriminalised in the UK; partly due to the resources required to sentence all those in possession and because of the sheer volume of cases, which our court service and prisons cannot accommodate. This effectively means that the fear of punishment for doing drugs is imaginary due to a lack of punishment for actually consuming illegal drugs. You can tell someone not to do something but you cannot stop them from doing it- we are curious by nature and will only learn from our own mistakes, not mistakes of others.

The current system also fails to effectively stop drug dealers. In fact it has just transferred the drug market to an underworld of criminals, it has not eliminated the supply, just displaced it. It has allowed for selling of impure drugs with a lack of cleanliness, which has led to unnecessary deaths. The current system punishes sellers (rightly) but the lucrative market created means that one persons arrest is another person’s opportunity. It has fuelled the creation of rival gangs, who fight over territory for a piece of the pie and other issues like prostitution and slavery are now also closely intertwined. The current system has also failed addicts. Making it harder for those who want help because of the stigma drug users receive. Their demonization is a stain upon our outdated and ineffective drug policy. The current system acts as a deterrent to inquire for help. The secretive world of drug dealers and buyers has made it harder to identify those who want or need help. Those individuals who become addicts should not be punished or looked down on. They should be heard and helped. Drugs are a device which keep people in a cycle of poverty and deprivation, stopping people from experiencing the true joys of life. Through ignorance people may believe that drug addiction is no longer that prevalent and that the system does a good job but, overall the system fails to stop supply or consumption of drugs and most significantly fails to help those who have become addicts.

Government policy must also look to change societies values. The term drugs is now only associated with illegal narcotics. Tobacco and alcohol epitomise the hypocrisy of the current system, being more dangerous, more addictive and more costly than most banned substances. What is the medical reason for banning cannabis but allowing alcohol and tobacco? The power of money in politics is the reason. Big corporations, which make cigarettes and alcohol, whilst destroying peoples lungs and intoxicating the nation, also fund political parties and the media. They exemplify the worst in politicians; vested interests were the reason for the reluctance in the introduction of smoking laws, causing ramifications that we are still dealing with today. Society now perceives alcohol and smoking as somehow acceptable whilst different illegal drugs and narcotics are associated with addicts, druggies and gangsters. It is a relic of a class divide, once reserved for the upper class and a way for them to generate wealth off the poorer classes. Society remains hell-bent on classing alcohol and tobacco’s occasional use as a ‘pleasure’ but an occasional tablet (due to a lack of historical significance and not benefiting those at the top) is somehow malicious.

No drug system is perfect but the current system has so many faults that we must look to modernize it. It fails addicts, it fails to permanently stop dealers and it fails to stop recreational users. To decide the appropriate drug policy we must firstly decide our aims. Is it to stop all use of drugs? Is it to help those who have become addicts? Is it to allow safe recreational use, similar to alcohol and tobacco?

Singapore is one example of a country that’s sole aim is to see a drop in consumption. It has seen a major fall in drug use through its notorious Misuse of Drugs Act. It now has 0.005% of the population using cannabis and 0.003% using ecstasy. Singapore has achieved this through a highly controversial and barbaric method: excessive prison punishment for possession, the option of death penalty for dealers and the use of propaganda. The authoritarian government also used it as a chance to take away further rights through mandatory drug testing and the burden of proof lying on a defendant rather than the government. In no way should this option be a model for the rest of the world. Gaining lower consumption at the cost of personal rights, the ruining of any users life and lack of help for addicts apart from a lengthened sentence is hardly ideal.

The new revolutionary method is the one proposed by the think tank Transform.

  1. Medical prescriptions and supervised consumption venues- for registered dependent users of the highest-risk drugs such as heroin
  2. Specialist Pharmacists- providing rationed quantities to registered users- for drugs such as amphetamine and MDMA
  3. Licensed Retail sales- like sales of tobacco and alcohol products- for drugs such as Cannabis
  4. Licensed Premises for sale and consumption- similar to licensed alcohol venues, or Dutch ‘coffee shops’- for drugs such as cannabis
  5. Unlicensed sales- minimal regulation- for the least risky products, such as caffeinated drinks and coca tea

This model legalises certain drugs, handing the drug market to the government through sales and the creation of supervised areas, which lease equipment and check purity. Medical prescriptions and registered dependent users with specialist pharmacies selling rationed quantities. The movement towards drug use being a health problem not a criminal one: allowing for identification and rehabilitation of addicts. The need for registration would allow for recreational use to be accompanied by educational prevention classes.

In truth if people want to try drugs they will, the effective decriminalisation of possession and lack of punishment means there is little deterrence. However they try them in an unsafe way, not knowing what they are taking and without proper knowledge or education. The new policy of legalisation would allow recreational users to buy certain drugs from licensed pharmacies. These would be safe, in controlled amounts and most importantly stop people meeting dealers who could lead them to harder drugs. The buying of equipment from licensed pharmacies (like in Portugal) would also allow people to stay safer; Portugal saw a major drop in new HIV cases once the government sold heroin needles. Any products bought by users could also be lawfully tested at designated pharmacies. This procedure was tried at the Secret Garden Party festival, in which ¼ of things tested were (by those who bought them) destroyed, as the users had not known their true identity. Harder, more addictive drugs would not be easily available these would require registration and meetings etc.

The biggest change this process could make is getting rid of dealers. Instantly drug dealing is unprofitable for substances that are now sold legally, crime in Colorado dramatically decreased after the legalisation of marijuana. A layer of drug dealers were eradicated, people no longer met dealers and were not introduced to the cycle of crime and gangs that follow with drug use.

Addicts could also be easily identified through allowing the sales of harder drugs in regulated amounts to people in supervised areas (once going through a process). The taking in a supervised area with proper equipment could also save lives and specific amounts could be given out to make overdosing impossible.

You may be thinking that this could only work in some kind of utopia but why should that stop us striving for it? Legalisation elsewhere was not followed by a huge proliferation in drug taking. Prohibition creates a violent market of drug buyers and sellers, so lucrative that law enforcement is now ineffective. Drug usage has effectively been decriminalised and the deterrence of punishment is all fantasy. Those who die from overdosing, lack of purity/cleanliness and through the organised crime funded by its sales are all avoidable. The war on drugs is an abysmal failure and a new approach is needed. A modernised system, in which we focus on health as opposed to crime, could see the end of marginalisation and a change to a more inclusive society, one that is accepting and looks to help those in need rather than to imprison them, in hope of setting them as an example to stop others making a similar mistake.

There is little hope for this 17-year-old boy whose future is defined as a death statistic of illegal drug use, the world will move on and his memory will fade. A simple error has meant that many experiences are simply out of his reach. Sadly this example is not specific to this case, I could have chosen several hundred other young people who paid the price of death, for the same avoidable mistake.

Photo Credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

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