The Many Ways the Rest of the World Is Beating the UK on Drugs

We might have virtually invented harm reduction in the 1980s, but since then we've been lagging behind in a big way.
Max Daly
London, GB
July 14, 2017, 9:00am
Marta Parszeniew 

This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.

During his first year as President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte went to work on his promise of tackling the harm that methamphetamine – or "yaba", as it's known there – was causing. His solution was simply to try to kill everyone who had anything to do with drugs: drug harm reduction via the method of mass murder. Despite killing an estimated 7,000 Filipino citizens, Duterte remains popular among a weary electorate that sees him as a politician of last resort.

Thousands of miles away, in Canada, where the drug problem revolves around a spike in opiate deaths, harm reduction entails a different approach – one that would surely give Duterte a heart attack. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, instead of being shot, Canada's addicted opiate injectors are given safe places and equipment to shoot up with. Some will soon be prescribed pharmaceutical heroin to move them away from street junk. All of these are clinically proven ways of preventing the spread of blood borne viruses and fatal overdoses.

Meanwhile, Trudeau's way of dealing with concerns over teenage cannabis use has been to effectively become the dealer himself, by legalising and regulating the cannabis industry in order to better protect users.

In 2017, the world's attitude to drug harm reduction is more bipolar than ever before. Some jurisdictions count success as the number of drug users' lives saved; others do so by the number of drug users' lives extinguished.

But which way is the world heading? Are countries which view the harsh methods used in places like the Philippines and Iran with disgust on humanitarian grounds actually doing enough to limit the damage done by drugs in their own back yard? In particular, what progress is being made in Britain?

"We are seeing countries adopt more pragmatic, evidence-based approaches to reduce the harm of drugs," says Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the UK drugs charity Release. From a growing number of European countries setting up safer injecting sites, to countries such as Ghana and Thailand stepping away from previously severe penalties for drug possession, progress is being made to reduce the harm of drugs.

Britain, a country that virtually invented drug harm reduction in the 1980s, is being left behind. While there have been pockets of innovative thinking – such as drug checking at festivals and clubs, police forces taking a lenient attitude to cannabis possession and a safer injecting site due in Glasgow – this has occurred on a local level, in spite of central government, not because of it.

Compared to other European countries, such as Germany, France and the relatively conservative, Catholic Ireland, Britain is content to keep calm and carry on, even at a time of record levels of drug-related deaths. The government's apparent disinterest in drug deaths or, really, anything to do with drugs is perfectly illustrated by the fact it was supposed to publish a new drug strategy 15 months ago, but only got around to doing so today.

"I'm genuinely surprised and disappointed that, given the impact the war on drugs has on the poorest people in UK, Labour has failed to pick up on drug law reform and harm reduction."

"Ultimately, drug policy and exploring more effective ways of reducing harms is an issue wrongly deemed by Parliament as being unimportant to the electorate," says Eastwood. "MPs don't want to spend political capital on it. But when you look at the high death rates from drug use, that position is a tragic reflection of politics today. Drugs is a third rail issue because the people who are dying are not considered as being worthy of help: they are the most stigmatised, most marginalised people in the country."

In the same way, the government is being allowed to ignore the mental harms being caused by the type of strong weed that now dominates the UK market. Steve Moore – director of drug think-tank Volteface, which is pushing for the UK's cannabis market to be regulated – says that doing nothing about cannabis is an abdication of duty by the authorities. Regulating the cannabis market is the best way of reducing harm, "yet the government is not being hounded".

The solution, says Moore, can be found abroad. Change occurs only where there has been "intensive, robust and professional grassroots activism". He adds that cannabis legalisation in Canada is a product of the guerilla businesses set up on the back of the sale of medicinal cannabis. Cannabis law changes in Canada and in parts of Spain have come about "not by having picnics in the park", says Moore, but by "setting up small businesses and co-ops and campaigning off the back of that".

Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, says the Labour Party is also culpable. "Yes, the government is pre-occupied with Brexit, but it's time we called out the Labour Party," he says. "I'm genuinely surprised and disappointed that, given the impact the war on drugs has on the poorest people in UK, Labour has failed to pick up on drug law reform and harm reduction."

Indeed, there was nothing in Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto about drugs. Worse for the future, it's not a subject Momentum appears to even be aware of; at The World Transformed – a huge ideas conference held by the group last year – Moore says that of around 300 events in three days, not one was about drugs.

It's impossible to estimate how many lives are saved each year by the hundreds of NGOs working in drug harm reduction around the world. Drug addiction is a symptom of marginalisation, so almost by accident, drug harm reduction represents the final safety net for many of the most socially excluded populations on Earth. But harm reduction in the drug world is not only about saving lives on the frontline; it's also about developing policy to prevent future harm.

It's regretful, then, that the UK government appears to be failing on both fronts. Regardless of who is going to be running this country, it's crucial that the lethal fallout from Britain's drug trade – the impact of which disproportionately falls on the young and the poor – is reduced.

Now is the time for people in the UK to act locally, to get professional, maybe even entrepreneurial, and force the issue onto the agenda, because in the House of Commons, they plainly don't give a shit.


More from our Safe Sesh editorial series:

We Asked Drug Dealers If They Care About Their Customers' Safety

How the UK's Festivals Changed Their Tune On Drugs

The YouTubers Who Take MDMA, DMT and GHB in Their Videos