Campaigners have called on the British government to sell stimulants such as ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines in state-run pharmacies.
In a new book, How to Regulate Stimulants: A Practical Guide, the drugs reform group Transform recommends the introduction of a regulatory agency, overseen by the government, that could license the production of these drugs. This “nationalised” system, they say, would provide a better alternative to the “unwinnable war against drugs”.
The global war on drugs has been fought for over 50 years, costing trillions of dollars. Transform have pointed out that rather than stemming the supply of illegal drugs, this war has merely “fuelled the development of the world’s largest illegal commodities market”.
Campaigners from harm reduction organisations have said the war on drugs is also a major driver of drug-related harm. Analysts from Harm Reduction International wrote in 2016, “The threat of arrest can itself keep people who use drugs away from harm reduction services, and increases risky behaviour such as unsafe injecting. In some countries [harm reduction] service providers themselves face legal sanction.”
Dr James Nicholls, Transform’s chief executive, has said that the book’s suggestions addresses all of these points. “Our proposals would take drug supply away from organised crime groups, creating a system that reduces harm rather than increasing it,” he told the Guardian. “The status quo can’t continue.”
The book’s authors say the stimulants could be sold in single doses, by specially trained chemists able to give tailored harm reduction advice, in unbranded packaging with highly visible risk information and health warnings.
The suggestions are broadly in line with recommendations made by former government drugs czar Professor David Nutt. In 2014, Nutt told VICE that drug possession should be decriminalised and that drug products should be regulated, but that there should be a total ban on marketing or advertising those products.
For MDMA, Nutt recommended regulated access and a personal allowance of around 50 doses per year. For amphetamines, he suggested a personal allowance of low-dose pills, sold over the counter in pharmacies. For cocaine, however, Nutt explained, “It's more toxic than newer stimulants by virtue of its complex pharmacology. I would find it difficult to have a regulated cocaine market.”
In 2018, the prestigious British Medical Journal joined an international collection of medical experts to argue in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing all drugs, writing, “The global trade in illicit drugs is worth £236 billion, but this money fuels organised crime and human misery. Why should it not instead fund public services?”
Despite persistent expert advice, governments worldwide have remained steadfast in their commitment to the war on drugs. Asked by the Guardian whether the UK government would reconsider its approach to stimulants such as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines, the Home Office said, “Absolutely not.”