Why the US Has Embraced Drug Law Reform, But the UK Won't

In the US, drug reform is at the centre of political debate while in Britain politicians continue to shove the issue under the carpet. Here’s why
Max Daly
London, GB
February 23, 2021, 2:48pm
Why Drug Reform Is Big Politics In America But AWOL In Britain
A woman smokes a joint as she attends a pro-weed march in New York. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

During Joe Biden’s successful presidential campaign one of the policies he highlighted was drug law reform. He pledged he would decriminalise cannabis, make it easier to expunge past criminal convictions and legalise the medical weed industry. He saw drug reform as a vote winner. Of course, he won the election and so did drugs, with voters opting for a series of reforms to liberalise state drug laws, including decriminalisation of all drugs in Oregon.

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Nothing could be more different from the way drug reform is being talked about – or not – in British politics. Here, drug reform is a subject the two main parties avoid like a discarded face mask.

When Labour leader Keir Starmer was asked over the weekend on Sky News whether he would consider any drug reform such as decriminalisation, he dismissed it out of hand, mumbling something about the damage caused by drug gangs. It was the same tactic used by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and by the Tory government, and every Home Secretary for as long as anyone can remember.

So why is there such a marked difference in the way US and British politics treat drug reform? Because on the surface the issues at stake are similar: record numbers of drug-related deaths on both sides of the Atlantic, rising acceptance of cannabis as a medicine and a pushback against racially biased policing.

There are several reasons why Biden felt comfortable using decriminalisation as a potential vote winner in a very tight election race and why the main two political parties in Britain would rather run a mile than do the same.

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In part this is about how you can’t transplant one drug scene onto another one.

The federal system in the US has allowed individual states to legalise weed, in a way that the government of the day would not have allowed at the national level. In the UK, Cornwall could not legalise weed, however many new age hippies live there.

This slow, state by state, revolution in the US has been accompanied by a hugely influential drug reform movement. Two key groups, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which came close to decriminalising cannabis under president Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) professionalised the art of weed lobbying.

“These people wore suits and went to Washington and did all that lobbying that big pharma, big tobacco and big oil does, it was real, hard-nosed political lobbying, which you don’t get in the UK,” said Harry Shapiro, director of drug information charity DrugWise and author of several books on drugs.

At the same time, some US states were knee-deep in cannabis-growing in a way that has never been the case in the UK. “There has been a long history of growing and distribution in California, in the bible belt, the Appalachians and bringing it in from Mexico,” said Shapiro. “Cannabis culture is so much more embedded in the US than Britain.”

But drug reformers in the US did not just pressure the government on weed law reform. With myriad grassroots crime and penal law reform groups, they also campaigned against the disproportionate impact the drug laws were having on ethnic minorities. In the US, with prisons packed with Black and Hispanic people serving time for low-level drug offences, and large numbers of Black people being shot and killed by police in the name of drug prohibition, drug law reform also became an issue of racism.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, followed by unprecedented national outrage during the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, made it a necessity for any liberal-minded politician during that 2020 election to address the impact the drug war and unjust policing was having on the streets.

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Shapiro doesn’t think Biden, whose son Hunter has been open about his own struggles with cocaine addiction, is a natural drug law liberaliser. But he clearly understands that something has to be done about the drug laws in order to make America a less racist society. Yet in the UK, said Shapiro, the BLM movement holds less public sway. Perhaps this is because – although Britain has similar issues with a criminal justice and policing system that is biased against ethnic minorities – this institutional racism is far less deadly because police in the UK are not armed.

“The scale, proximity and racist horror of the drug war has provided the context for drug reform in the USA,” said George McBride, co-founder of Hanway Associates, a UK cannabis consultancy. “But in Britain, voters are less aware of the many injustices of the current system, and drug reform campaigners struggle to relate this to the electorate.”

McBride said the UK drug debate is “mired in dull and esoteric issues around harm reduction”, while in the US “drug reform is driven by a fervent passion to overthrow a corrupt and racist system”.

“Keir Starmer knows better, but he has chosen to look the other way as he did during his role running the Crown Prosecution Service while he helped preside over a system that was just as racist as the US system, but on such a smaller scale. The gentle trickle of misery never really caught the public's attention in the way that the raging torrent of misery in the US has.”

In Britain there is less public appetite for reform on cannabis than in America. In the US, 68 percent of Americans support legal recreational weed, compared to 48 percent in the UK. “Under half” and “more than two thirds” are big differences when it comes down to how politicians react. It could just be that in the US, weed, as it is in Canada where the drug is now legal, is far more widespread than it is in Britain.  A much smaller proportion (3.8 percent compared to 11.5 percent) and volume (1.3 million compared to 31 million) of people are regular cannabis users in Britain compared to America.

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In both countries, the issue of drugs comes with a lot of moral baggage. But in Britain politicians are perhaps more fearful of saying anything that sounds liberal about drugs. This is because in Britain there is a powerful, nationwide group of right-wing national newspapers with large cohorts of loyal readers waiting to pounce. In the US there is no real national press, apart from the big cable networks. “In Britain the media is more influential politically than it is collectively in the States, so politicians are probably more running scared of the media over here when it comes to talking about drugs,” said Shapiro.

At a time when Labour and the Tories are battling for the hearts and minds of the so called “red wall”, an area mostly in the Midlands and North of England which analysts say has been ignored by metro elite politicians from the South, drugs are going to be overlooked more than usual in UK politics.

“I'm really not sure drug decriminalisation is a key issue now, nor is it a priority for most people, particularly in those seats Labour most needs to win back,” said Marcus Roberts, a drugs and crime policy advisor and chair of the Essex Recovery Foundation.

“I'd think the key consideration for Starmer’s team is getting back to power, and that means reconnecting with Labour’s base. Drug decriminalisation, whatever its merits, feels like the sort of metro-liberal issue that isn't going to help the party reconnect with communities struggling with long term decline, the impact of the pandemic and the EU exit.”

For Labour and the Tories however, it seems the only vote winning mention is the tried and tested mantra of being tough on drug crime, of ramping up the war on drugs, no matter that for all the video footage of ministers and police chiefs talking to camera as doors are busted down in drug raids, it’s a war that clearly will not be won. On drugs, whether it’s weed or heroin, the simpler the message the better: drug addiction and drug dealing is a “scourge” on communities that needs to be stamped out.

The truth about the drug problem – as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon detailed in a wide-ranging speech accepting her government’s culpability in Scotland’s record number of drug deaths – is that drug addiction and drug dealing is not a “scourge on society”. These things are in fact symptoms of a broken society, and criminalising, neglecting and stigmatising drug users cements that harm.

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A Labour spokesperson told VICE World News: “The government is completely failing to get to grips with the scale of the drugs problem in the UK. Too many people are not getting the support they need. Police cuts have enabled drug gangs to prosper and spread violence, while there has been a huge increase in the incidence of County Lines.

“Labour supports the Lammy Review, which looked at ways to help reform the criminal justice system to address the disproportionality that lies behind these issues. The government should also move much faster to put in place sensible policies around the prescribed, medicinal uses of cannabis.”

Unlike in the US, British politicians remain free to wilfully ignore the well-known links between bad drug policy and bad human rights: whether it’s someone given a criminal record for a bag of weed, jailed for a stash of MDMA or stopped and searched every week for drugs because of the colour of their skin.  

Most tragically, this refusal to talk about any drug reform at all, will most likely impact the most disadvantaged members of society, the ones living in the red wall constituencies, far away from the capital.

@narcomania