Political Cynicism Is Killing Drug Users
And voters are just as responsible as the politicians themselves.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire/PA Images
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.
This article was written by Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which launched an initiative in the UK named Anyone's Child – a collection of parents who have lost their children to drugs and now campaign for a change in drug laws.
I never met the children of our Anyone's Child family members – who, in their parents' views, died as a result of the UK's drug war. Anne-Marie's daughter Martha, who was 15 when she died after taking a colossal amount of ecstasy; or Ray's two boys, Jacques and Torin, ecstasy overdoses; or Penny's son, heroin OD; or Rose's two boys, heroin. The list goes on.
I have, however, sat with their parents on many occasions and cried with them as they told me the all too vivid stories of their children's passing.
The UK has one of the highest drug-related death rates in Europe; there are 50 such deaths every week. On the other hand, Portugal – which decriminalised possession of drugs in 2001 – has a drug-induced death rate far lower than ours, and the Swiss – unlike us – just don't have ecstasy deaths at festivals. Since Uruguay and Canada took the decision to legalise the production and supply of cannabis, plenty of alternatives to the drug war are happening around the world, while – from Mexico to Afghanistan, the US to the UK – it's obvious the drug war does not protect ordinary people in a way that could be described as anything near ethical or sustainable.
So why, when we all agree that the job of government is to govern in the interests of the people they represent, do we not call on our politicians for reform? Quite simply, a combination of cynicism from voters and politicians is holding us back.
Our political leaders from both major parties have cynically used drug policy for propaganda purposes for decades. Voters, on the other hand, have either bought into the lie that we are protected by drug prohibition or, in a dangerous feedback loop, have resigned themselves to the fact that politicians will default to acting only in their own self interest. At a deep level, we have lost faith in the integrity of politicians to deliver drug policies that protect us. We have watched as successive governments have given the alcohol, nicotine and pharmaceutical industries what amounts to a free ride in terms of a lack of adequate regulation, while also seeing them gift a vast drug trade to organised criminals and unregulated dealers.
Many years ago, at a public meeting, I asked Tony Blair whether prohibition created more crime than it prevented. His answer: "I'm terrified for my children." It was but one example of a politician failing to engage with evidence. Another: when the Home Office published a report finding that "there is no apparent correlation between the 'toughness' of a country's approach and the prevalence of adult drug use", David Cameron said, "I don't believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today. I'm a parent with three children; I don't want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe."
It was partly in order to counter this propaganda that we set up the Anyone's Child campaign, and yet both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have continued to weaponise drug policy for political gain, rather than genuinely engage with the overwhelming evidence that shows criminalisation kills, while health-based approaches save lives and reduce harm.
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There is absolutely nothing to stop any UK government from putting in place innovative harm reduction and drug regulation, aside from their respective political power plays. Yet, rather than take an evidence-based position, as recently as 2015 the Labour Party was weaponising drug policy to attack the Lib Dems, describing their position as "soft on drugs" and declaring that they wanted to reserve the option of imprisonment for drug possession.
In 2002, David Cameron and Tom Watson were back-bench members of the HASC drugs inquiry, whose final recommendation was: "We recommend that the government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma." Since then, both have actively opposed review and reform.
In 2000, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell signed an EDM calling for cannabis cultivation to be licensed. They must now show leadership and follow through to make this party policy.
We have heard numerous MPs repeat the myth that they cannot take a reform position because they might take a hit in the Daily Mail, as if a negative headline is reason not to pursue a policy that would keep citizens alive and healthy. This has to stop; politicians' overweening self-interest in political power must give way to citizen protection.
As governments throughout the world put in place policy that genuinely protects, we must get stuck in politically, calling on our political leaders to look after, rather than punish, us. But in order to do that we are going to have to let go of our cynicism toward government and our ability to influence it. Our mutual cynicism is what has brought us to the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in. Cynicism is not going to get us out. If we collectively campaign to push our leaders to act in our interests, not theirs, we can achieve the reforms others have elsewhere.
Giving up on our politicians means giving up on ourselves and, more importantly, those less able to act than us. For the sake of those families that we can save from bereavement and trauma, let us re-engage with the parties that have forsaken us for their own gain up to now, reclaim Parliament for our own and put in place drug policies that protect, not violate, some of the most vulnerable people in society.
More from our Safe Sesh editorial series: