Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Re:Vision Drug Policy Network (DP124)


Executive Summary

Our memorandum focuses chiefly on pointing out the ways in which current government policy fails to be a fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, and human rights. We argue that the government does not take on board important scientific advances, and that all the evidence is against the current direction of drug policy leading to a better future. We argue that a health-based approach would entail acknowledging that not all drug use is inherently problematic and that it is more important to mitigate the harms of existing use than to rely on supply or demand control. We point out two ways in which the current approach fails to provide value for money, and finally, we argue that the Misuse of Drugs Act violates the spirit of the Human Rights Act, both in theory and in practice. In conclusion, we suggest looking at the many available models for drug policy that involve decriminalisation and increased control and regulation by removing the black market in drugs.


1. This memorandum is structured around the fact that the inquiry is examining whether government drug policy is a “fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights”. We have chosen to respond in four sections: science, health, fiscal responsibility, and human rights.

Scientific Basis/Evidence

Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)

2. First we shall look at the ACMD. Following the high profile sacking of Professor David Nutt in 2009 as Chair of the ACMD, which was followed by the resignations of several other committee members in protest, the government has changed the requirement for experts in particular areas, such as pharmacy or veterinary science, to omit any reference to science at all.F1F They stated that this was to offer greater flexibility, but it is quite convenient that the ACMD cannot be declared inquorate because of a lack of expertise.

3. Even attempts to heed these requirements led to the appointment of Hans-Christian Raabe in January 2011, an abstinence only “expert”, who was eventually dismissed before he had the opportunity to attend a meeting due to media coverage of his association with the Christian Party and his outspoken homophobia.F2F While Re:Vision Drug Policy Network is absolutely opposed to homophobia in all forms, Dr Raabe’s appointment was far more remarkable for the fact that he appears to have no qualifications, experience or background in drug policy or drug use whatsoever. We have been unable to determine by what criteria, or by whom, Dr Raabe was considered a suitable candidate to advise the government on drugs and drug policy.

4. Even with these changes, the ACMD still recommended in a submission to the Sentencing Council in October 2011 that drug offences regarding personal possession should be subject to civil penalties rather than criminal ones, with an emphasis on treatment and education rather than punitive measures. This was flatly rejected by the Home Office, who stated, “We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs are illegal because they are harmful—they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities.”F3F

5. Points (2)–(4) clearly show that government policy makes use of the ACMD how and when it likes to and ignores it when it does not, which can hardly be considered the epitome of evidence-based policy.

Evidence for Current Drug Policy

6. David Cameron sat on the last Home Affair Select Committee Inquiry into Drugs, and supported its recommendations, including potentially to look at legalising some drugs. He said, “Surely the point of a good drug policy is about keeping users healthier and out of the criminal justice system.”F4F He has now distanced himself from these remarks and policies, but the evidence has not changed in the intervening decade.

7. In particular, the previous Home Affairs Committee Inquiry into Drugs concluded that: “If there is any single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail.” It also said that “we have to recognise that, however much advice they are offered, many young people will continue to use drugs” and as such, it “makes sense to give priority to educating such young people in harm minimisation rather than prosecuting them”. We are concerned to see that there has been no significant shift in this direction in the past 10 years.

8. A recurring theme in drug policy debate over the past several years has been that the present classification of drugs has no scientific basis. There is little correlation between the harms that drugs cause and the category they are put in,F5F and numerous calls to reclassify certain drugs to better represent their relative harms have been rebuffed (the last Home Affairs Select Committee recommended reclassifying Ecstasy as class B, as has the ACMD. David Cameron himself supported this downgrade in the 2005 Conservative Party leadership debate, retracting his views 24 hours later).F6F By failing to include alcohol or tobacco in the class system—two drugs whose use is widespread and deadly—the comparison is skewed before it even begins. All these factors lead us to believe that the class system is based more on political expedience than on a considered ranking of harms.


9. Together, these factors make it obvious that current drug policy is based on heady mixture of the moral principles that drug use is wrong and users must be punished, a dose of political posturing, and an unwavering belief that following the same rough direction in drug policy will lead to an end to the drug problem. Whether any senior politicians actually have this belief, it is difficult to say, since ever more politicians out of office are speaking out to say that the drug war must end. However, this belief does seem to be the institutional grounding of all drug policy.


10. In response to the Inquiry’s question “How big a role should public health considerations play in drugs policy?” we believe public health should be a major consideration in drugs policy. International treaties in drug control were advocated, at least partially, for the protection of public health. However, by any measure the current control measures are failing to protect public health.

11. A stark example of this is the ballooning number of problematic drug users today when compared to 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced. That heroin use has risen by 1,000% is a oft-mentioned statistic. Anyone working with young people, drug users, or disadvantaged communities is well aware that drugs are available and accessible to anyone with ready cash and a willingness to ask around.

12. It must be noted is that drug use is not inherently problematic. Much of our nation’s culture, art, and scientific innovations were produced under the influence of drugs. Millions of people use drugs every month with little or no consequences. There are at least 144,000 people using MDMA each monthF7F and somewhere in the region of 10–20 people die solely from its use in a year.F8F The use of MDMA is indeed a safer activity than horse-riding. With this in mind, the protection of public health should not be focused on preventing young people from taking drugs but on reducing already existing harms (as the previous Home Affairs Committee rightly noted).

13. Criminalising users makes them far less likely to seek help when they need it and encourage less safe forms of drug taking. Worse, current government policy criminalises efforts to provide appropriate harm reduction services. For example, Section 9A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 prohibits the distribution of foil, but not needles, to drug users. This results in the incidental promotion of injecting drug use above smoking, even though injecting drug use increases the spread of disease, risk of addiction, venial collapse, and arterial pseudo-aneurysms.

14. The two previous points show the way to a more meaningful drug policy: one which acknowledges that drug use is not inherently problematic and attempts to mitigate its more damaging aspects, without relying mainly on cutting off the supply of currently illegal drugs or criminalising users.

15. People respond to messages about drugs that are about keeping yourself safe and methods of harm reduction—they do not pay attention to warning about risks. Drug-takers have already decided that the pleasure brought by the drug outweighs the risk to themselves. However, they are willing to and do listen to health campaigns and to make use of harm reduction paraphernalia when it is made accessible to them. It is important that we realise this as a society and direct our resources fully into harm reduction rather than enforcement, if we want to ensure a healthy society and reduce the spread of disease.

Fiscal Responsibility

16. Prisoners are currently costing the taxpayer £42,000 each, every year, and it is estimated that around 10,000 people, or 15% of the UK prison population, are there for offences regarding the production, supply, and possession of drugs. As the current recidivism rate is at nearly three quarters of prisoners, and the social stigma of criminal records for drug-related offences is severe and increasing under the current government, people who are imprisoned for non-violent drug offences are forced to keep committing those same offences after they leave prison, because they have no other option. This is costing our prison system a fortune and failing to stem the drugs trade—in fact because nearly every prisoner in Britain has access to heroin and little to do, you are more likely to become a heroin addict when you enter prison than to quit being one before you leave.F9

17. While not directly applicable to the UK, RAND Corporation’s paper Controlling Cocaine showed that treatment programmes were by far the most cost-effective way to reduce the number of cocaine users in the US,F10F with every one dollar spent on treatment saving $7.48 in societal costs (compared with 15–52 cents of savings for a dollar of enforcement spending). As far as we are aware, there is no research similar to this in the UK, but even if enforcement spending in the UK is an order of magnitude more effective at reducing supply or demand than in the US, it would likely still be less fiscally efficient than spending the same amount on treatment.

18. We would like to echo Transform’s point in a submission to the previous Inquiry into Drugs which called for the ACMD to have more funding so that it could examine such questions on an ongoing basis.

Human Rights

Private life

19. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (HRA) is about the right to privacy:

11.Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

20. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission guidance on Article 8 points out that “the courts have interpreted the concept of “private life” in a very broad way”,F11F and it means that the government should not interfere in one’s private life as long as one respects the rights of others.

21. Current drug policy does not respect this right. Drug use forms a regular part of many people’s private lives that does not significantly affect the exercise of others’ rights, and as such should be protected under the HRA. However, private drug-taking in the presence of consenting adults is technically criminal. The criminalisation of private and consensual activities for political reasons runs contrary to the principles of human rights.

The Burden of Enforcement

22. Fundamentally, it is impossible to enforce the law effectively on users because of the numbers of people involved and the amount of state surveillance that would be required. In practice this means that a significant proportion of the population are technically criminals—at least 8.8% of all British adults between 16–59 took controlled drugs in the last 12 months alone. (British Crime Survey figures).

23. In practice, however, some groups are criminalised more than others—non-whites, young people and people who look “different”. Alex Stevens’ research shows that Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, prosecuted or imprisoned for drug offences than white people. This is despite no evidence that taken as a group, Black people use or sell drugs any more than white people.12

24. Anecdotally, Re:Vision members have seen trends in enforcement where young people are more likely to be stopped than older people. Having long hair, wearing “hippyish” clothes or having dreadlocks all seem to make someone significantly more likely attract attention from the police.

25. The way the law is enforced means that a private life with regard to drug use is allowed for some but not for others. Article 14 of the HRA demands that human rights are available to all, without distinction based on factors such as ethnic group, age, or appearance. In theory all drug users are criminal, but in practice they are not, and the difference between the two leaves the government’s policy running contrary to the principles of human rights.

26. The government could step up enforcement, spending more on policing, jail and surveillance, in order to avoid discrimination, but it cannot do this while respecting Article 8. If drugs are to be treated as human rights issue, the government must stop the blanket criminalisation of drug use.


27. A conviction for drug use is likely to damage someone a lot more than taking the drug itself. A criminal record is considered stigmatic, and a conviction for any kind of drug related offence doubly so. An early conviction for a non-violent drug offence for a teenager from a disadvantaged background (the demographic most likely to be stopped and searched) forces them into a vicious cycle where they are unable to integrate into mainstream society and must remain dependant on drug dealing to support themselves or dependant on drug use in order to deal with the pressures upon them. This is not a situation which benefits the teenager, the taxpayer, or society.


28. Should the government wish to change its current trajectory, it does not need to look far for comprehensive alternative strategies. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation published a document in 2009 called After the War on Drugs: The Blueprint for Regulation, in which they comprehensively discussed how drugs could be controlled and regulated, including production, supply, consumption, advertising, using a phased introduction. This document is specific to Britain and thorough in its analysis.

29. Alternatively, the government could take its current policies to their logical conclusion and press enforcement even harder. This has been the approach of Russia, which has successfully all but shut down the heroin trade in its territory. Instead of reducing drug use, however, drug users are now creating their own opiates from household chemicals and iodine. This drug is known as “Krokadil”, because injecting it causes the skin to rot and develop gangrene around the injecting site, giving a reptilian appearance.


30. It is clear that the current system is ineffective at reducing drug use, use-related harms, or providing good value to money. As outlined above, our alternatives are to move to a controlled and regulated system, or to press ever more harshly on enforcement. Re:Vision Drug Policy Network considers control and regulation to be the obvious and compelling model for drug policy-makers.

January 2012

1 In Royal Statistical Society News, web address: HwwwHH.HHrssenewsHH.HHorgHH.HHukHH/HHarticlesHH/20101206

2 In the Daily Mail, web address: http://tinyurl.com/Hans-Christian-Raabe-sacked-Go

3 In the Daily Mail, web address: http://tinyurl.com/Government-left-red-faced-OWN

4 See www.jc73n16.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/uv/UV17/UV%20Page%205%20and%206%20Cameron.pdf

5 See “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis” by Nutt, D & King, L, & Phillips, L in The Lancet, HVolumeHH 376, HHIssueHH 9752.

6 in the Daily Mail; see http://tinyurl.com/Cameron-backtracks-drugs-downg

7 Figure from Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2010–11 British Crime Survey, p 27.

8 from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, “Drug-Related Deaths in the UK Annual Report 2010”, published by St Georges’ Hospital Medical School.

9 Charles Bronson noted in his book, “The Good Prison Guide”, that because of the imposition of mandatory drug testing in prisons, the dominant drug used in prison has switched from cannabis (which can be detected in urine up to 30 days after use) to heroin (which remains just 24 hours).

10 Rydell, C P & Everingham, S S, (1994). Controlling Cocaine (Santa Monica, CA: Drug Policy Research Center, RAND Corporation), p 42. HwwwHH.HHrandHH.HHorgHH/HHpubsHH/HmonographH_HHreportsHH/2006/HHRANDHH_HHMRHH331.HHpdfH

11 EHRC website, “What are Human Rights? The Right to Privacy,” HhttpHH://HHtinyurlHH.HHcomHH/HHehrcHH-HHprivacy

12 Stevens, Alex (2011). Drugs, Crime and Health. Routledge.

Prepared 8th December 2012