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Current drug policy is failing, it’s time we treat addiction as a health issue instead of a criminal justice one

No amount of criminal charges, or prison time served, will reduce the volume and variety of drugs available on our streets today, writes Ronnie Cowan MP. | PA Images

6 min read

While we continue to isolate and stigmatise drug use the problem will only get worse. We need to reform the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and introduce safe drug consumption rooms.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I have waited with my heart in my mouth for the daily update from the First Minister of Scotland and uppermost in my mind has been the number of deaths recorded in the previous 24 hours.

I sighed with relief when that number dropped to zero and rejoiced each day that it stayed there. But during that time, and throughout the year, four people will die each day from an overdose in Scotland and 12 in England and Wales.

The saying ‘you keep talking, we keep dying‘, is often used within the drug reform community and it is as true today as it has been for decades. I hoped that a recent report from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, would get a fair hearing from the UK government but it has been swatted away and treated with utter disdain.

The UK Government – where the failed policy sits – considers illegal drugs a criminal matter and the consumption of them as a lifestyle choice. Therefore, people who take drugs are breaking the law and should be treated as criminals and tried as such. A lot of people would agree, and a lot of those people consume alcohol.

The difference in the perception of illegal drug use, compared to the consumption of legal alcohol, allows us to stigmatise illegal drug users and then isolate and persecute them.

The often-repeated image is of people injecting in filthy conditions, sharing needles, contracting related illnesses and dying. Yet when a solution to that scenario is brought forward, in the shape of a safe consumption room, the UK Government refuses point blank to even consider it because it condones drug use and it can’t be part of that.

The truth is that safe drug consumption facilities saves lives, encourages people into care, provides support for rough sleepers and helps those with an addiction. The people supporting such ventures treat problematic drug-use as a health issue, not a criminal justice one. The irony being that successful drug consumption rooms result in a reduction of crime too.

The Home Office is being presented with a ‘win-win’ solution, but its blinkered ‘hit them hard’ mentality – along with an unhealthy sprinkling of arrogance and hubris – leaves it incapable of anything resembling self-criticism or analytical thought.

The UK Home Office has spent more time and effort trying to prevent drug consumption rooms than it has ever spent trying to understand the need for them in the first place.

The UK government has said, “We want to do all that we can to stop people having access to drugs that could ultimately kill them.” But alcohol is marketed and sold legally and because of that the quality of the product can be guaranteed. People use it in social settings and the UK Government took £10bn off the top in tax last year.

We have issues with alcohol abuse but the UK Government’s mixed messaging says that one is good and the other evil. Which simply isn’t true. Drugs can damage you and alcohol is a drug. It was the UK Parliament that decided in 1971 which ones were illegal, but this was not based on the substance’s ability to harm, otherwise alcohol would never be legal.

And while the Home Office refuses safe drug consumption rooms, and the licences required to operate in the UK, the Houses of Parliament has its own wide array of consumption rooms: 16 bars and restaurants where alcohol is subsidised and available to MPs during the working day.

The hypocrisy is staggering and so are some of the MPs. Your local pub is a safe drug consumption room – so is any high street coffee shop and all smoking shelters. It just depends on your drug of choice and your attitude towards consumption in the first place.

Prior to 1968, we had what was known as the ‘British system’. It was a tolerant, supportive system which grew out of an inquiry into addiction in 1926. The system permitted any doctor to supply heroin, morphine, cocaine and other drugs to those who were dependent upon them. In the 1950s the USA tried to impose global heroin prohibition. Under pressure from the British medical profession, the UK Parliament did not follow the USA’s lead. But the US was not minded to taking ‘no’ for an answer.

Just as today, when we can see the UK being steered towards lower food standards, back in 1971, at the behest of the USA, we accepted lower standards of drugs legislation.

One outcome has been a lack of medical research into psychedelic drugs. Nearly 50 years later, the benefits of psilocybin (a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms) are being revisited and understood. But 50 years – when we could have been producing good research – have been wasted and we are just beginning to play catch up.

For instance, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 years of age in the UK – and recent research appears to show that psilocybin can be used to help decrease the severity of depression and suicidal thoughts. But this research would be easier if the Home Office would reassign psilocybin as a schedule two drug.

Unfortunately many people have adopted an attitude that restricts their ability to accept that humans have been taking drugs for thousands of years and we are not about to stop. The job of MPs should be to make it as safe as possible and then facilitate engagement with users to ease the pain and suffering that many are experiencing.

While we continue to isolate, and stigmatise, the problem will only get worse. And no amount of criminal charges, or prison time served, will reduce the volume and variety of drugs available on our streets today.

It’s time to take a long hard look at the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act: are we misinterpreting it? Can we use it better? Do we need to change it? One thing for sure is that it’s time to treat all addictions as health matters. And safe drug consumption rooms would be a good place to start.


Ronnie Cowan is the Scottish National Party MP for Inverclyde and vice-chair of the APPG on drug policy reform.

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Read the most recent article written by Ronnie Cowan MP - Broken Britain: Inverclyde – the most deprived constituency in Scotland


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