DEBATE: The case for drug decriminilisation in The UK

The Motion:  The War on Drugs isn’t working: we should decriminalise all drugs in the UK and monitor usage and users more closely?

In favour of the motion:  By Robin Pollard (Operations Coordinator at Youth RISE)

1. Our current system is failing

Since the creation of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) the use of illicit drugs in the UK has grown rapidly and is now among the highest in Europe.  The present system of applying criminal law to the personal use and possession of drugs has failed.  Drugs are still widely available and accessible and people are not deterred from using drugs.

The economic, social and public health harms caused by pursuing this approach to drug use has been significant.  We need to embrace ‘drug decriminalisation’ and apply non-criminal sanctions to drug possession offences.  This can result in either no criminal action being taken against those who are caught in possession of drugs or they can be given a civil response (like a parking ticket).  Currently, there are estimated to be 25-30 different countries experimenting with various decriminalisation models.

2. Evidence shows that decriminalisation does not lead to an increase in drug use

The most recent evidence examining the effects of decriminalisation have shown that removing criminal sanctions for possessing drugs does not lead to an increase in drug use.  The Dutch, with very liberal cannabis laws are among the lowest users of cannabis in Europe. Portugal which has been pioneering a decriminalisation model since 2001 has also seen reductions in the number of young people taking drugs.

Here in the UK, British Crime Survey statistics from 2007 also indicate that the proportion of 16 to 24 year-olds using cannabis decreased from 28%, 10 years before to 21%, this was at the time of the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C.  These are only a few examples; the latest report by the charity Release explores this issue in much greater detail.

The idea that less punitive approaches would encourage more drug use is a reasonable proposition to make, however the evidence available shows that this isn’t the case.  Balanced analysis from Portugal’s experience with decriminalising drug use shows that they had slight increases in some drug use followed by some slighter falls, which compares favourably with the trends in the neighbouring countries and the rest of the EU over the same period.

Most importantly, young people growing up under this system used fewer drugs, and harms and deaths from heroin went down as a result of a treatment-centred attitude replacing a punishment-centred approach.  Switzerland, where heroin is available on prescription is another example where liberal approaches have yielded positive results, where the numbers of heroin users have been steadily falling.

Countries with decriminalisation systems have some of the lowest prevalence rates, while countries with some of the harshest criminalisation systems such as the United States have some of the highest prevalence of drug use in the world.  An editorial in The Economist clearly summarises the reality:

“There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.  Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates.”

3. Criminalisation impacts on young people’s education and employment opportunities

Around 80,000 Britons last year had their futures ruined by receiving criminal records for minor drug offenses.  Nearly 30% of all these cautions and prosecutions for drug possession were given to young people under the age of 21, many of whom may only be experimenting with drugs or using for very brief periods and will suffer for the rest of their lives.

With increasing numbers of employers demanding enhanced criminal records check (CRB) for job applications, the ability for a young person to gain meaningful long-term employment after a drug related conviction is seriously hindered.  A criminal record is never cleared and as such, criminal records essentially act as a life sentence, stigmatising tens of thousands of young people.

4. Drug laws are disproportionate and racist

In 2010, there were 250,000 stop and searches in London alone for drugs possession offences, of which 8% resulted in arrests. Research by Professor Alex Stevens shows black people in London are 6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs offences than white people, 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched and 11 times more likely to go to prison for a drugs offences.

These statistics ignore the reality that drug use is less prevalent in the black community than the white community.  The enforcement of the UK drug laws are disproportionately and systematically racist predominantly targeting ethnic minorities, contributing to the breakdown in trust with the police, polarising communities and damaging the social fabric and unity of town and cities across the UK.

5. Save police time and resources: invest in treatment

Huge sums of money are spent by the police, courts and the prison system enforcing these policies.  We should be diverting resources and people away from incarceration, easing the strain on our over-burdened criminal justice system.  Billions are wasted on police time that could be reinvested into improving our chronically underfunded treatment and harm reduction programs.

Drug use and addiction is a very complex issue, an issue that shouldn’t be addressed by the criminal justice system.  To understand and help those who are problematic drug users, we should be using the vast sums spent on involving drug users in the criminal justice system and investing in a variety of drug services that are needed to fully address this complex issue.  The European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction summarises the Portuguese model concisely calling it “a public health policy founded on values such as humanism, pragmatism, and participation.”  This is what the UK should be aiming to achieve.

6. The appetite for drug policy reform is growing

Addressing drug policy reform in the UK has for decades been seen as political suicide for the political class.  Thankfully, changes in public opinion are shifting the environment for politicians and allowing them to debate these issues.  Independent polls now show the public actually supports exploring alternatives to the current approach of criminalisation.  Politicians need to follow.

A recent poll conducted by YouGov for The Sun newspaper shows that 56% of people surveyed said they would like to see the idea of complete legalisation reviewed – along with other policy options.  This poll, from just a few days ago highlights the continuing shift in public opinion towards exploring alternatives for policy reform when it is managed in a sensible and evidence-based manner.

Support for exploring decriminalisation models are now supported by leading professional authorities, including, the editor of the British Medical Journal Dr Fiona Godlee, Sir Ian Gilmore former president of the Royal College of Physicians and Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council.


Approaches which explicitly reject an evidence-based public health approaches, but instead focus on incarceration and criminalisation of addicts, continue to utterly fail, at enormous financial and human cost and this is now recognised internationally.

Support for decriminalisation is rapidly increasing.  Only last week, the heads of UNAIDS and the UNDP made a call for reform of laws that make drug possession (rather than dealing) a crime.  They were supported by former presidents of Botswana and Brazil, senators, Supreme Court justices, and leading human rights and health experts from six continents.

This comes only weeks after the second Global Commission on Drug Policy’s which includes Richard Branson, Kofi Annan and a number of former presidents and leading international figures highlighting how bad drug policies are accelerating the effects of HIV in many parts of the world and outlining how drug decriminalisation is an essential response to stop the spread of this pandemic.

We need to create a more humanistic, pragmatic and evidence-based drug policy to minimise harms and protect the future opportunities of our young people.


This argument was supplied by Robin Pollard of Youth RISE



In favour of the motion – 87%

Against the motion          – 13%


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