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If the Tory leadership race achieves one thing, it should be urgent change to our drugs laws ǀ View

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The leadership race for prime minister is in full swing in the United Kingdom. But away from Conservative Party hustings, the leadership hopefuls shared details about what they get up to outside of politics. Something which has interested the public is their historic drug use. It started with Michael Gove’s admission that he had previously used cocaine whilst working as a journalist in London, before his time as a Member of Parliament. Gove’s admission was soon followed by others candidates in the leadership race also sharing their drug-taking histories. But aside from the media hype this has caused, many are now reading between the lines and asking more questions about the broader implications of the UK’s drug policies.

Looking at the list, cannabis seemed to be quite a popular drug of choice for Tory leadership hopefuls, with Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt and Andrea Leadsom all admitting to using the drug at some point in their lives. Cannabis, which has been at the heart of controversy and debates in the UK, is currently categorised as a Class B drug. This means that anybody found in the possession of it could face a sentence of up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or a combination of the two. Much like Michael Gove, Rory Stewart’s use of opium places him above their fellow party members in the classification of drugs. Both cocaine and opium are Class A drugs, the possession of which carries a prison sentence of up to seven years, an unlimited fine, or both.

Even if I were calling for these MPs to be arrested and investigated, their party’s public sector budget cuts have ensured that the already over-stretched police service will not be knocking at their door any time soon.
Hadley Stewart
Writer, broadcaster and medical journalist

I think the conversation about drug use is much broader than if members should face the criminal justice or not. Even if I were calling for these MPs to be arrested and investigated, their party’s public sector budget cuts have ensured that the already over-stretched police service will not be knocking at their door any time soon. These revelations have, however, opened up questions about how people from different socio-economic groups in the UK are treated by the criminal justice service.

When looking at research conducted by the London School of Economics, it seems clear that there are racial disparities between those prosecuted for possession of cannabis. In the UK, the practice of “stop and search” gives police officers the power to search an individual who they suspect of illegal activity. With regards to cannabis prosecutions, most smaller-scale cannabis seizures have resulted from these tactics. You could argue that this demonstrates the need for such a method of policing, but not when it also indicates a level of racial prejudice by police officers. When looking at the data, an overwhelming number of black people are being stopped, for instance. In fact, black people are nine times more likely to be stopped on suspicion of drug possession compared to white people.

I would argue that given such disparities, it is clear that there is a severe problem with current policing of illicit drugs. The fact that white and black people are treated differently in the eyes of the police only serves to illustrate the need for change. What’s more, all the MPs who admitted to taking illegal drugs are white. Had “stop and search” been in place at the time of their drug taking, would they have been searched and prosecuted? It is rather telling that a group of white middle class people feel able to admit to using drugs while black people continue to be disproportionately impacted by current drug policing policies.

With regards to the classification of drugs, this too has been the subject of much debate. When ranking drugs in order of the harm they cause to a person’s health, it seems apparent that the current classification system is not fit for purpose. Whilst some Class A drugs like heroin appear towards the top of the list for causing the most harm, alcohol does not appear at all though it should be well above many Class B and C drugs. Alcohol is a legal drug and not even classified by the law, yet it is a drug that has the potential to cause great physical and social harms. Tobacco is a similar example of a drug that is not illegal, but has the potential to inflicted serious harm. With this argument in mind, perhaps the classification of drugs needs an overhaul, as a means of better reflecting the harms associated with them.

But is drug use solely a criminal justice problem? I would argue that it is more of a public health problem. One of the most talked about examples of decriminalisation of drugs in Europe is Portugal. The country decided to decriminalise the possession and consumption of illicit drugs, opting instead for warnings and fines to be issued to those found in possession. Additionally, orders to seek support from a doctor or social worker for treatment or harm reduction were also issued. The move saw a dramatic drop in the number of new HIV cases, drug-related crime and drug-related deaths. I believe that this shift from a criminal to public health approach enabled barriers that are put up by drug laws to be broken down, allowing for those taking drugs to feel more willing to access health and social care services.

A change in the law would not be the only thing needed to reduce the UK’s drug-related health and social harms. Greater investment in addiction and drug treatment services would be required, as well as a social shift in the way people who take drugs are viewed. Similarly in other countries in Europe, people who take drugs are stigmatised and marginalised from the rest of society. This results in them being unable to access health and social care services. Finally, drug laws push drug supply chains underground, which are often linked with violent crime and human trafficking. A change to laws could enable a decline in wider societal issues that are intertwined with drug use.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the recent admissions made by certain Conservative MPs have made headlines across the UK. Although some might argue that this demonstrates a more “human” side to politicians, I would argue that it is a reminder that drug laws in the UK are in need of urgent reform. The classification of illicit drugs do not currently reflect the health and social harms that they cause, nor is the policing of drugs undertaken fairly and without prejudice. Given the success of Portugal, it could be argued that a public health approach to drug use achieves more favourable outcomes, rather than a criminal justice approach. Until these drug policies are reexamined, people who use drugs will continue to be stigmatised and marginalised, resulting in them not being able to access the treatment and harm reduction support they so need.

Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.

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