Drug Decriminalisation is the Call of Desperation

Richard Thomas takes on the proponents of drug decriminalisation


Political parties who are often on the fringe of the domestic agenda need new initiatives and ideas to keep themselves in the mainstream. As we have seen with the Lib Dems and more recently with Plaid Cymru in Wales, the call for the “drug decriminalisation” is used as a smokescreen to cover over a deficit in policy.

‘Drug Decrminalisation’ is a gimmick

As we saw with the Plaid’s conference last week, the call by a party to appear more “down with the kids” is to say that taking drugs shall not be punished by the state. It seems to me that Plaid and the Lib Dems, needing something to catch the headlines and distract people from their domestic woes, announce a controversial policy to raise eyebrows and make themselves known.

The trouble is with these announcements, they are often not really thought through. 

I have no doubt, as with all those who call for drug decriminalisation, their reasons and intentions are good and moral.

Take for example the idea that there has been a “War” against drug users. Plaid announced that this so called has been an “unmitigated” failure. I agree. But this is not because the law has been tough on those taking drugs – it has failed because there hasn’t been any sort of police action which would resemble a “war”.

The ‘War on Drugs’ has been non-existent

Take the (still) illegal drug cannabis for example. This is a drug which in all but name has already been decriminalised. In 2017, just over 15,000 people were arrested for the possession of the drug in 2017, 19% less than in 2015. This comes at a time when police on the whole no longer investigate or do anything about “low level” crime, of which recreational drug use is undoubtedly part of the police’s subjective definition of “low level.”  Indeed, three years ago, Dorset, Derbyshire and Surrey police publicly stated that they would no longer arrest those caught with cannabis, as it is a “low priority.” Most of those caught in possession of the drug are given a “Cannabis warning,”  which is essentailly a non-recorded telling off once if the user admits the offence. The background to this police ruling comes from guidence from ACPO in 2009. As far as I can see, letting offenders off for cannabis possession (before a caution, or fine), has never been put to the public in a manifesto, or debated in parliament. How can the police suddenly decide which laws they prosecute and which they don’t?

What about other types of drugs? In 2016, police records show that there were 111,000 people caught in possession of all drugs, including the most serious of class A. Just 9% were sent to prison who didn’t have a previous conviction or a conviction relating to a different offence – just over 1,100 for the whole year. This would indicate that so few people caught in possession of Class A drugs go to prison for that, single offence.

As far back as 2013 in the infancy of austerity, fewer people were sent to prison then given a caution for the supply of heroin. Of the 9500 arrested, just over 500 were sent to prison (with a term of less than six months). Most were given a fine of less than £150 – this is a class A drug. The figures for Class B and C are pitiful.

In this report from that year, so less than 1% of those caught in possession of an illegal substance go to prison. As David Green, the Chief Executive of Civitas, a think tank who analyse recorded crime and prison figures, stated in 2013, “People…..say that we have a regime which is too severe. They are wrong.”

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He went on “we have already got as close to decriminalising possession of drugs as is possible without actually taking the final step.”

Let’s examine pre-Tory austerity. In 2009 (when there were 145,000 police officers, a British record) there were just over 200,000 recorded incidents by the police involving some form of drug possession and less than 11,000 went to prison for that offence. No data is readily available to say how many of these 11,000 were first time offenders, but my guess is very few.

Even when we could flash the cash, we still didn’t punish drug users.

These are only a random snapshot of the state of the enforcement of the current drug laws. Examine any crime statistics, from any police force in England and Wales, and you will see that there is a trend which suggests that drug possession is not punished or that the law is not enforced to any satisfactory degree.

Where is this so called “War on Drugs?” It seems to me that the authorities, particularly the police and courts, do their best not to enforce the drug laws, by letting people off with ridiculous fines and non existent cautions. This isn’t tough prohibition. The “War on Drugs” doesn’t exist.

Drugs are by no means harmless substances

Plaid then made the claim that this non existent war “criminalises ordinary people,” as drug use does “no harm to others.” Both of these are extraordinary, complacent claims. Firstly, everybody who takes illegal drugs knows that they are illegal, of which there is no normality in doing so. People who do it run the risk of criminalising themselves, not the other way round. Of course, this attitude fits in with another subjective assertion, that addiction is an illness, comparing those who abuse themselves and drugs to people suffering cancer or parkinsons disease – of which the individual has no choice. Secondly, what is this nonsense that recreational drug use doesn’t harm people? This is often the arrogant stance portrayed by the liberal extremists, who like to think that no one or any moral authority can tell them what to do, especially what they can or can’t do to their own bodies – and the freedom to take dangerous drugs opitomises this selfish view. For some, liberalism of the drug laws (particularly cannabis) is their own crusade and pretending to care about those whose lives have been destroyed by drugs is part of the course. If addiction is such a terrible disease, then wouldn’t it make more sense to restrict the individuals’ access to it, using morality and the law if necessary to prevent people destroying their lives before their choice of pleasure gets out of hand? Not “regulating” and hoping the criminals will somehow just get fed up and go. Yes, there are many things which people can be addicted to, but it is my view that is not an argument to unleash more dangerous substances upon young, impressionable minds. In fact, isn’t it an argument to toughen up our laws on such things as alcohol and junk food advertising, as well as reviewing the laws on many of legal drugs which do so much harm to our bodies?

No one can deny cannabis, cocaine and heroin are dangerous, so why would we want more of it? In any sense, watching someone degenerate into addiction and dependence is a harrowing example that drug taking is not a victimless crime – it affects those closest to the individual concerned. Not only that, society at large is a victim. If you are so duped that you can not work or your mental health has suffered because of addiction, then it is the state which must pick up the pieces, either through punishment in prisons or harm reduction programmes. The state either subsidises their life, or their habits. Both of these are morally objectionable.

Plaid and the Lib Dems are not the only ones who support drug decriminalisation. I suspect that this issue is only going to grow and grow. We need a proper debate about the current drugs policy, because it is clear that something is dramatically wrong. Let’s look objectively at Portugal, Colorado, California and Canada and ask, are these really the liberalised, drug utopias many claim they are? How de facto drug decriminalisiation led to more drug use, as it has in this country?

By all means let’s have this debate and the uses of prohibition. But lets deal with facts, not liberal propaganda.