We need to rethink our approach to illicit drugs

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Criminalizing people who use illegal substances does not prevent their sale or use, says Dr David Turner

During the pandemic, I had a remote meeting with Boris Johnson in one of his cabinets. It was in his capacity as 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’m a doctor – he asked me what I would do about the drugs problem in the UK.

My response was unambiguous: “Legalize. Take control of the drug supply away from criminals and you will empty the prisons, which are almost useless anyway to prevent the illegal drug trade.

He replied, “We’ll have to look at that.”

Two years later, we have had two new prime ministers, and the problem of illegal drugs is worse than ever.

A recent BMJ article highlighted the escalation of drug deaths in the UK. It reported that 3,060 deaths were linked to illicit drug use in England and Wales in 2021. Sadly, this is not surprising as rates have increased over the past 10 years.

I once worked as a general practitioner in a prison, and it became clear to me that criminalizing and locking up people who choose to take substances that the government deems illegal does virtually nothing to prevent their sale or use. In fact, it is often easier to buy drugs inside the prison than outside.

Yes, some people get sober and turn their lives around in prison. But it is mostly highly motivated individuals who are serving longer sentences. People sentenced to shorter sentences, even if they want to, often do not stay 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 live such miserable lives that they want to escape, illegal substances will continue to be the way out for many.

Legalizing drugs and giving the state control of their distribution would put criminal drug gangs out of business overnight. Yes, it would be a huge undertaking, but the benefits — in terms of cost savings to the criminal justice system and improved health for those who currently obtain their drugs from criminals — would be enormous.

State distribution of clinical-grade drugs in known doses to registered persons, linked to drug treatment programs and health screenings, with treatment for blood-borne viruses and all other diseases including drug addicts long term are more likely to suffer, may seem like a fairy tale. But how long can we persist in the illusion that imprisoning people who use illegal substances does anything useful?

Opponents ask me if I think my approach would reduce illegal drug use. 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

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