05:07, June 22 235 0 theguardian.com

2018-06-22 05:07:17
If Labour is really progressive, it will pledge to decriminalise drugs

While discussion of drugs and drug policy often revolve around facts, figures and complex science, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on what I have witnessed at British music festivals over the past four years.

Summer after summer, I arrive in fields across the UK on a mission to shine a light on how we take drugs. One year, I traipsed across campsites with DIY testing kits – helping revellers understand how pure their stashes were, and what they were cut with.

I giggled as a lad pulled out a Rennie he’d purchased from a bloke in the early hours of the morning, thinking it was ecstasy; I sat with others, googling complicated sounding compounds with which their samples of ketamine, MDMA and cocaine had been mixed. Some were shocked by the revelations, while others weren’t bothered. Each, however, appreciated the opportunity to make a slightly more informed choice. It became obvious testing like this should be commonplace, but we will struggle to make it so as long as we criminalise the use of drugs.

A year later I returned, keen to explore how attendees had managed to sneak their drugs through the searches, security and sniffer dogs. While the ingenuity was compelling (hiding drugs in a tampon was a highlight), once again, the risks being taken were laid bare. Those with experience and the know-how confidently snuck in their gear from a known supplier, while younger, more vulnerable users were left at the mercy of dealers on-site: their safety in the hands of unaccountable strangers.

Last year I went to a festival in Dorset, to delve into the relationships fostered between drug dealers and users. Customer experience surveys and online reviews are commonplace for even the most specialist of retailers – a bad experience is shared online – they are how we make informed decisions.

And yet our interactions with drug dealers – from getting in their cars in the dead of night to wilfully consuming whatever pills and powders we purchase – are very much leaps of faith. There’s no mechanism to warn others of a bad experience, and the risks are far greater than getting a sub-par pizza or a dodgy tan. On the final night of that festival, due to drug-related issues, a young woman died.

There are two simple truths that need to be confronted: criminalising possession doesn’t stop people taking drugs, and the “war on drugs” has failed. Yet discussions are muted, sensible debates shrouded in misinformation and fear. So much so that Theresa May continues to argue life-changing medicine shouldn’t be available to ill children by virtue of it being derived from a cannabis plant. Meanwhile, Labour has said it would legalise the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes.

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Politicians are terrified of ending criminal sanctions for possession, claiming that it sends a message that taking drugs is normalised or condoned. A quick look at the 25 countries and 40+ jurisdictions that have taken this action make clear that this is not the case – an increase in usage simply hasn’t materialised. Meanwhile, nearly a third of British adults admit to having consumed an illegal substance in their lifetime, and approximately 3 million have done so in the last year. Decades of criminalisation have had little effect.

It’s not just that the criminalisation is futile, it is also actively harmful. Consider Portugal, where drug decriminalisation has proved overwhelmingly successful since 2001 – the population is healthier thanks to a radical change in the law. There are now just six drug-overdose deaths per million people in Portugal, while the figure in the UK has risen to 60 per million – and drug-related deaths are rapidly increasing. Portugal also saw a 97% decrease in new HIV cases through intravenous drug use, and an 18% reduction in drug-related social costs over the first 10 years of reforms.

Criminal penalties mean that asking for guidance, support and advice for recreational users becomes a risky business – and it is costing lives. Our refusal to speak openly about illegal drugs – both in schools and in society at large – means we’re failing to educate about how to engage with drugs safely, while glamourising their consumption as some sort of rebellious pursuit. Profits and public safety end up in criminal hands.

Addiction is portrayed as an issue of law rather than health, with valuable resources diverted into policing and prisons rather than supporting users out of addiction. The evidence is obvious, the arguments clear, and yet our politicians refuse to take action. It’s the responsibility of government and law enforcement to help protect the population, to keep us safe. If the Tories are unwilling to take on this task in relation to drugs in Britain, it’s time the Labour party steps up.

A sensible drug policy is long overdue, one that legalises cannabis, and decriminalises possession of illegal substances across the board. It creates space for a grownup debate about how best to educate the population and regulate the purchase of substances that, while illegal, will forever be accessible to those who want to find them. Enough with the jingoism, let’s start keeping people safe.

  • Michael Segalov is the news editor at Huck magazine and a freelance journalist