The Fallacy of the War on Drugs

Benedict Pignatelli

On Monday 18th, Priti Patel came out with some new proposed legislation, aiming to curb drug crime through harsh methods similar to Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’, the hardline campaign that has been failing to produce positive results since the 1970s.

1971 Misuse of Drugs Act

With the drug trade supposedly resulting in more deaths than knife crime and road accidents combined, and costing nearly £22 billion in taxpayer’s money, it is no surprise the debate on what to do about drug crime has once again come up. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) showed that the proportion of adults aged 16 to 24 years who reported having taken any drug in the last year was as high as 21%, 1.3 million people.

It was clear something had to be done in terms of drug policy in the UK, with serious criticism of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act coming to light in June of last year, with many MPs speaking out.

One main concern was that the success at battling drug crime was limited and temporary, and often evolved the market into something even more dangerous. Another concern was the dramatic increases in use and mortality across almost all drugs since 1971. Also the bill prevented other avenues from being explored, ones that could tackle drugs in a more humane and proactive way, such as overdose prevention centres.

Conservative Nick Fletcher argued against a hard line on drug crime, instead proposing ‘two simple policies’; educating young people, and supporting people with addiction. He argued this would ‘drastically reduce demand and therefore the size of the market.’

Priti Patel’s proposals

However, despite Fletcher and many others criticising the hard line, Patel chose to ignore them. Unlike many countries that have accepted the war on drugs is not a useful way to handle the situation, the current administration still seems determined to flog the dead horse. Priti Patel’s proposals, although amazingly alliterative, are otherwise unhelpful and alarming. Miss Patel said: ‘We are cracking down on drug use, with tougher consequences for so-called recreational drug users. They will face the consequences of their actions’.

New proposed laws would introduce a ‘three strikes’ system, with escalated punishments depending on the strike, reminiscent of the Three Strikes rule introduced into the United States in the 1990s. In Patel’s war on drugs, each time the culprit is arrested, the strike comes with more severe punishments.

Why anyone would want to copy the infamous Three Strikes rule of America is another peculiarity. Patel’s white papers suggest if a person is caught for a third time in possession of drugs (including cannabis), they could be banned from bars and nightclubs, have their ID (passport, driving licence) revoked, and be made to wear an ankle tag that monitors the blood and tests for drugs. The alternative to this Orwellian ultimatum would be prison.

Priti Patel argued: ‘Drugs are a scourge across society. Drug misuse puts lives at risk, fuels criminality and serious and violent crime and also results in the grotesque exploitation of young, vulnerable people.’ A controversial statement considering the proposals, including several hefty fines, would no doubt exploit vulnerable, young people who have been exposed to drugs.

One might wonder if Patel will include herself and fellow MPs in these proposals after cocaine was found in Parliament toilets last Christmas. In fact, the Guardian implied the move was a last-ditch effort to distance the current government from its reputation for illegal parties.

Phantom middle-class coke heads at large

The emphasis on these proposals to target ‘middle-class coke heads’ is another bizarre development. What exactly is meant by this is uncertain. Harsh drug legislation has a history of affecting the poorer communities in the UK, so it is unclear how targeting the middle class would help.

Moreover, the days when Oliver would be thrown out of his comfortable, middle-class life and dropped into a workhouse are thankfully behind us, the caste-like system once in place in Britain has evolved. How exactly Patel and the police plan to determine who is a recreational drug taker, and who is a ‘middle-class coke head’ remains a mystery.

The only proactive approach they are endorsing, the rehabilitation courses, also come with controversy. There is a statement debating whether to hold the courses ‘above cost’; essentially give people rehab at a fee higher than necessary – essentially to make a profit for the government. Aside from seeming to prosper from the plight of potential addicts, this will allow the ‘middle-class coke heads’ to pay their way out of trouble, and leave those less fortunate to pick up the tab.

Patel is not alone when it comes to controversial proposals on drug reform. In 2021 Conservative Dr Kieran Mullen argued treatment doesn’t help, and what is required is for drug addicts to ‘hit rock bottom’. He criticised more lenient and supportive methods, arguing the ‘idea we will fix this problem by giving people treatment is naïve.’

Patel still has a hard line against legalising or decriminalising drugs, but these proposals seem less like actual projects to combat the drug trade and more like the final attempt of a crumbling government to appear strong in the face of adversity.

About the author: Benedict Pignatelli is a contributing writer from Dublin, Ireland. He studied World Religions and Arabic Language, and has an interest in Middle Eastern politics. He also writes fiction and was longlisted for the 2019 Bridport Prize.