The weekend before last two more festival goers died after taking super-potent drugs bought from the illegal market. Inner city violence, (if not directly related to them) is increasingly catalysed by drug turf wars. This week nearly fifty people will die from overdoses of one sort or another. The reason: we have collectively created a hostile environment for drug users and suppliers. We should not be surprised when hostility results in violence, disease, misery and ultimately death, as it invariably has since the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) came into being in 1971. The Home Office, (as it has with immigrants) treats those of us who are involved with using and supplying certain drugs as less than human, and uses the MO of a ‘hostile environment’ to scapegoat us for numerous societal ills.
Prior to 1971 the UK operated primarily a health led approach to drug use, and violence associated with drug dealing was relatively low. With the introduction of the MDA the Home Office took over the lead for the drugs brief. This could only mean one thing: the primary goal of protecting public health would be replaced with a system that would treat users and suppliers with hostility, one based upon criminalisation. And, so the argument goes, why wouldn’t we support a policy that is hostile to users and dealers? Why would we support a policy that treats them with anything other than contempt? And why would we support a policy that recognises drug users and suppliers as human beings with equal rights? Dealers forego their rights when they sell drugs to our loved ones. And users forego ours when we use drugs that addle our minds so much that we are prepared to rob, steal and lie, or even sell our bodies to strangers to buy the drugs to which we are addicted.
Well, here’s a clue as to why hostility might be our default setting. The UN convention on which, our domestic drug prohibition is based, states that UN member states, (the UK included): “are conscious of their duty to prevent and combat the evil of drug addiction”. And so, the thinking goes: Why on earth would we not support a policy that is hostile to ‘evil’. And why would we care if ‘evil’ people die? Who would not support a policy that removes evil from the world? This would appear to be the attitude of the governments of the Philippines and Bangladesh in particular, both of whom are engaged in the extra judicial killing of people who use drugs.
The Home Office came under fierce criticism for us of thier ‘Go Home’ vans, and are accused of creating a hostile environment for immigrants living in the UK.
But which ‘evil’ drug users and suppliers are identified in the UN convention? Surely not tobacco smokers and alcohol drinkers? Correct. People who sell and use alcohol and tobacco are clearly not ‘evil’, and are not mentioned in the convention. (Tobacco has its own convention covering legalised supply, under the auspices of the WHO.) The people identified by the UN are those involved in the use and supply of primarily (at least when it was originally drafted) cannabis, opium and cocaine. Those users and dealers were chosen because the American administration was keen to create a fiercely hostile environment for people of Afro-American, Chinese and Hispanic origin, and drug criminalisation was the easiest way to accomplish it.
So, that’s the history that led to the Home Office adopting its policy of hostility to certain drug users and suppliers that still operates today. Meanwhile the Home Office sits back and watches as millions of us drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, and has no interest whatsoever in creating a hostile environment for people who supply those drugs.
But the hostile environment for the ‘evil’ people who use and supply the ‘wrong’ drugs continues. This hostile environment is what has led to impure, too pure, mis-sold and always unlabelled drugs killing young people at festivals. It is hostility that created the illegal market that has led to violence similar to that which occurred under alcohol Prohibition in the US in the twenties, afflicting inner cities throughout the country. It is hostility that has led to ‘county lines’ exploitation, whereby young people are enslaved into running drugs from one county to another. It is hostility that has led to a drug treatment system that prioritises abstinence over reducing harm, that has in turn led the UK to having one of the highest overdose rates in Europe.
The environment is as hostile as it has ever been under the current Tory Government, but the Labour Party has also operated a hostile system when it has held office. Worse, both parties, and particularly the Labour Party, have even gone so far as to make even the environment for debate hostile. Never mind the Daily Mail, it is the Labour Party that has historically, very deliberately weaponised drugs and reform to attack the Lib Dems for being ‘soft on drugs’. So, not only are those from poor communities being treated with the utmost hostility, their elected leaders are treating the whole issue of reform with contempt by using it as a stick with which to beat political opponents.
Clearly what is needed now is for senior politicians of both major parties to put down their rhetorical and enforcement weaponry. To begin a conversation, as a matter of some urgency, to figure out how to de-weaponise drug policy, and replace prohibition and war with regulation and peace. And, to be fair, that has begun, from Jeff Smith MP and labour whip, and from Crispin Blunt MP on the Tory back benches, at least. And on the shadow front bench Diane Abbott said that the war on drugs has failed (although she ruled out legalising cannabis) and Kate Osamor said that both the war on drugs and the war on terror have failed (page 10).
UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, continues the “war against drugs” despite her own research indicating its failure.
In the meantime though, the UK’s hostile environment created by prohibition is killing people from overdose at ten times the rate of Portugal, where drug possession is decriminalised and use is treated as a public health issue. It is incumbent on all MPs who care about the marginalised and disadvantaged to acknowledge and articulate the fact that the hostile environment that they have supported for so long, is inimical to public health and to responsible political discourse. This isn’t a request, it’s a demand. People who use drugs are not evil. However, the discrimination and stigma that generations of hostility have heaped upon us has brought such great shame that many are too afraid to speak out.
Thankfully those dark days are fast becoming history and, more and more of us are acting to demand equality with our brothers and sisters who smoke and drink and supply different drugs. We must demand that government replaces the hostile environment with a benign and effective policy that promotes health and wellbeing. At the least we must no longer remain complicit in supporting an environment that is killing our kids through lack of care and through violent enforcement. We can end the hostility. Our elected representatives hold the key, but we hold their futures in the palms of our hands. When you next visit a polling booth, make sure that you know your candidates’ views on drug prohibition. And on 26 June you have a special chance to engage your MP as Transform and others in the drug policy reform movement lobby parliament on World Anti-Drugs Day. If our elected representatives aren’t committed to creating peaceful and resilient communities, we must demonstrate that we are, and vote for politicians who will put an end to this particular hostile environment.