Blog: We need to talk about drugs

04 July 2018

Simon Kempton

Simon Kempton PFEW Operational Policing Lead

Our Operational Policing Lead Simon Kempton explains why society, law makers and law enforcers need to have an honest conversation about the prohibition of drugs.

I was asked by a journalist the other day if I take drugs. I don’t. They are illegal. And I am a police officer.

But for millions people in this country – and around the world – the answer to that same question (if they were being honest) would be yes. That’s a lot of people who the law defines as criminals.

And that is why we need to have an honest open debate about drugs, their use and their prohibition. And it is part of the reason why we as a Federation have taken the bold move to call for a public debate on the future of drugs legislation.

Current legislation prohibits the possession, consumption and supply of substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This has led us to a de facto position of prohibition of these substances.

Prohibition, however, has its roots in the First World War. Before then, the use of substances such as opium and coca derivatives was commonplace. This free for all position led to concerns first about troops on leave from the War using these substances and then further concerns around criminals using heightened concerns.

This led to increasing steps to criminalise drugs, culminating in the 1971 legislation.

We at the Federation have acknowledged that this has been largely unsuccessful, that the proliferation of drugs in this country is unchecked and that the current situation is fuelling an illicit trade in not only drugs but weapons and the violence that comes with it.

Furthermore, policing in a post-austerity world does not have the resources to effectively tackle this problem; in truth it is unlikely we ever did but we now police in a world where often 999 calls go unanswered. In such an environment, we must face up to the realities of what our resources allow us to do and the service we can provide to our communities.

Austerity has also impacted negatively on current efforts to divert users into treatment programs and the like, as those programs see their funding curtailed heavily.

There is mounting empirical evidence from around the world, from countries so diverse as Portugal, Uruguay, the Netherlands and the United States that alternative approaches to the drugs problem are more effective and bring far more benefits to society.

In Portugal, a commission of experts determined what quantity the “average” heroin user would take in a ten day period and set that as the threshold for personal use. Any possession below that was decriminalised. Possession of larger amounts remained a criminal offence. Responsibility for the drugs strategy passed from their Justice Ministry to their Health Ministry and policy refocussed on treatment rather than punitive action.

The results in Portugal are stark; fewer people are taking drugs, there are fewer incidents of HIV and Hepatitis transmission between drug users and far fewer drug-related deaths. There have been huge financial benefits too, as fewer people find themselves in either the medical or criminal justice systems.

Other countries have taken other approaches. The United States, for example, has recently seen the legalisation of cannabis in some states, with citizens being allowed to grow a small number of plants for their own use. Retail of small amounts is also permitted, bringing with it a requisite revenue income.

Canada is set to legalise cannabis wholesale, the first G7 country to do so.

It is estimated that a similar situation in the United Kingdom would raise more than £1bn per year. Furthermore, it is estimated that this would save nearly £300m per year in money currently spent by police, court, prison and probation services.

Moreover, decriminalising some or all of the currently illicit drugs market will take money away from those who make their income from that market; the organised criminals making many, many millions of pounds and at the same time inflicting violence and misery on society.

Drugs are dangerous and do have the potential to ruin lives and whole communities. No change in legislation should undertaken rashly.

However, any such changes should be based on evidence and hard data. And the current evidence shows clearly that the situation as it stands is not working, is not keeping people safe and is not realistically enforceable by the police.

This debate has the potential to polarise. However, I believe most police officers recognise that the fight against drugs, those who sell them and those who import them is not being won.

We are calling for honest conversation because our members are telling us that they’re already overstretched combatting crime that causes the most threat, risk and harm, and that they are frustrated at having to spend large amounts of time dealing with those who use small quantities of drugs.

And it is not just police officers who have an opinion on this issue. A recent poll showed that more than 50 percent of people wanted to see Cannabis legalised and that two thirds backed a comprehensive legal review of all the possible options for controlling drugs.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not saying that police officers should turn a blind eye to drug offences. The police service will of course continue to uphold the laws passed by Parliament.

What I am saying is that 100 years after the introduction of prohibition in the UK it is time to reflect on whether this is the most effective way of curtailing illicit drug use and the social problems that come with it.