Get Up to Speed On the UK's New Approach to Various Drugs
It's been a busy year for UK drug policy, but where do we stand right now?
Before this autumn's Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Sajid Javid took aim at the middle-class drug users he considers significantly responsible for increased street violence in the UK. In a speech, Javid committed to a review on drug use while also prompting the heckles of drugs reformers by stating, "You are not innocent – no one is innocent if they are taking illegal drugs."
It was the conclusion to a topsy-turvy summer for drugs in the Home Office. On the one hand, there's been seemingly significant landmarks: the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for certain conditions and increasing acceptance of drug-testing at festivals. On the other, it seems there's little appetite to end the Sisyphean shit-show we call the War on Drugs.
So, is Javid just playing politics, or are there signs we're actually living in a progressive era for drug policy? I called some experts and spoke to them about all the biggies, to find out, then ranked the recent actions out of ten.
Back in July, following an emotive campaign led by the families of Billy Caldwell, 12, and Alfie Dingley, six, Javid said that medicinal cannabis would be available on prescription to "help patients with an exceptional clinical need". A summer of inactivity helped foster suspicion that it was just a grab for popular opinion, until last week, when the Home Office confirmed the rescheduling of weed to Schedule 2 under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations Act (2001), opening it up to patients with conditions like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and cancer from the 1st of November. But is it enough?
"If you look at all recent cannabis movements, they take time," says Harry Sumnall, Professor in Substance Use at the Public Health Institute. "This is a brand new system, and the guidance needs to be produced so that, when it's introduced, we get it right."
While the Home Office themselves told VICE that they "have no intention of legalising the recreational use of cannabis", in countries like Canada and Uruguay, a regulated recreational market followed medical access. "Public opinion seems behind public access to it," says Sumnall. "This is highly speculative, but could be a sign that the government is providing a lens through which they can analyse whether there's public acceptability for further changes in the future."
Javid's comments regarding middle class drug-takers inspired a collective eye-roll from virtually everyone but the Mail Online readers it was clearly aimed to impress. "No one is going to put their head above the parapet and stick up for these so-called middle class cocaine users, so it's a very easy target," says Henry Fisher, drugs campaigner and Senior Chemist at The Loop. "It's easy to show he [Javid] is in control, law and order wise."
Although, in principle, any review aimed at enhancing our knowledge of drug use should be encouraged, Javid's aims are fraught with roadblocks: notably the fact that, while households earning over £50,000 had the highest percentage (3.45 percent) of cocaine use, these only comprise 5.4 million households out of 27 million in the UK. What Javid didn't say was that 3.6 percent of unemployed people had used cocaine in 2017/18, as had 2 percent of households with under £10,000 income, and 2.1 percent of people in households earning £10,000 to £20,000.
More pertinently: cocaine is far from the worst offender when it comes to inspiring the trouble Javid is trying to avert. "Powder cocaine is involved in some of the problem with violence and county lines," says Sumnall, "but most of the violence is around crack and heroin, and always has been. This is just a distraction."
There was notable approval in July when Nick Hurd, Minister of State at the Home Office, said the government wouldn't "stand in the way" of local police constabularies that want to approve festival drugs testing, as pioneered by The Loop for the last two summers.
After request for comment, the Home Office reiterated that "chief constables are responsible for operational decisions in their local area and we are not standing in their way". Henry Fisher says the next step in legitimising their work is publishing some evidence-based data that proves the testing's effectiveness at decreasing drug-related harms.
"We’re hoping to publish this in the next six months," Fisher says.
Drug deaths in the UK remain at record levels, with 3,756 reported in 2017 by the Office for National Statistics. Heroin and morphine comprised 1,164 of these, while fentanyl deaths rose 29 percent, from 58 in 2016 to 75 in 2017.
Despite previous advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which suggested that consideration should be given to consumption rooms where users can inject safely under supervision and gain access to support, the Home Office told VICE: "There is no legal framework for the provision of Drug Consumption Rooms in the UK and we have no plans to introduce them."
Consumptions rooms are not a silver bullet by themselves, but there are many proven benefits – and Harry Sumnall says there's reason for tentative hope. "I think members of the police force have been increasingly looking at things through a public health lens," he explains. "There's an increasing understanding of why someone ends up injecting heroin in a back street. Our compassion and understanding in terms of reaching top politicians has only gone so far, but on the ground I think we're seeing evidence of improvement."
Spice – a catch-all brand name for the synthetic cannabinoids that were made illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act (2016) – has been the subject of stigmatising headlines in the press, generally focusing on the behaviour of so-called "Spice zombies".
The drug is currently classified as a class B drug and, earlier this year, a collection of Conservative crime and police commissioners (PCC) wrote an open letter recommending it be upgraded to class A. So far, the Home Office has resisted this request. They told VICE that "following two previous changes to legislation, the most recent controls for 'third generation' synthetic cannabinoids only came into effect in December 2016. However, as with all controlled drugs we will continue to monitor their impact."
The usefulness of upgrading Spice's classification seems pretty opaque, and, like so many aspects of the war on drugs, avoids the complex mental and socio-economic problems that have come to characterise the average Spice abuser. "Increasing [the class of] Spice is not going to confront these issues," says Sumnall. "To be fair, the PCC did acknowledge this in their letter, but the headlines and discussion tends to be around this class A thing because that will send a message. But sending a message doesn't tend to help the most vulnerable people."