Criminalising people who take illegal substances does not stop their sale or use, says Dr David Turner
During the pandemic, I had a remote meeting with Boris Johnson in one of his surgeries. It was in his capacity as our local MP; we were trying to persuade him to support the Dignity in Dying campaign.
At the end of the call – clearly wanting to talk about something different and aware that I am a doctor – he asked me what I would do about the UK’s drug problem.
My answer was unambiguous: ‘Legalise. Take control of the drug supply away from criminals and you will empty the prisons, which are next to useless in any case as a means of preventing the illegal drug trade.’
He replied: ‘We’ll have to look at that.’
Two years on, we have had two new Prime Ministers, and the illegal drug problem is worse than ever.
A recent BMJ article highlighted the escalating drug deaths in the UK. It reported that 3,060 deaths were related to the use of illicit drugs in England and Wales in 2021. Sadly, this is not surprising as rates have been increasing for the past 10 years.
I once worked as a prison GP, and it was apparent to me that criminalising and locking up people who choose to take substances that the Government deems illegal does next to nothing to prevent their sale or use. In fact, it is often easier to buy drugs inside prison than outside.
Yes, some people get clean and turn their lives around in prison. But these are mostly very motivated individuals who are serving longer sentences. Those given shorter sentences, even if they have the will, are often not in there long enough to receive the help they need.
The root of the problem, of course, is socio-economic deprivation. And as long as people are living lives so miserable that they want to escape from them, illegal substances will continue to be the way out for many.
Legalising drugs and giving the state control of their distribution would put criminal drug gangs out of business overnight. Yes, it would be an enormous undertaking, but the benefits – financially in savings for the criminal justice system and in improved health for those currently obtaining their drugs from criminals – would be huge.
The state distribution of clinical-grade drugs in known doses to registered individuals, tied to drug rehabilitation programmes and health screenings, with treatment for blood-born viruses and all the other illnesses long-term drug users are more likely to suffer from, may sound like a fairy tale. But how long can we persist with the delusion that imprisoning people who take illegal substances is doing anything useful?
Naysayers ask me if I think my approach would reduce illegal drug taking. In the short term, no.
But what is clear is that the war on drugs is irrefutably lost.
Dr Turner is a GP in Hertfordshire. Read more of his blogs here