Drug Decriminalization in the UK: Is There a Disconnect Between Politicians and the Public?

Drug Decriminalization in the UK: Is There a Disconnect Between Politicians and the Public?

It has taken far too long for the topic of drug decriminalization to be the subject of prime-time television debate. What was strikingly apparent from the discussions on Thursday night’s BBC Question Time in Plymouth, South West England, was the contrasting views of the studio audience and the guest panel, formed of members of Parliament and newspaper columnists. (If you're in the UK, you can view the program on BBC iPlayer.)

Labour and Conservative MPs David Lammy and Elizabeth Truss defiantly opposed decriminalization. Jeremy Browne, Liberal Democrat MP and minister of state in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was cautiously and uncomfortably ambivalent. And Melanie Phillips, columnist for the Daily Mail, vehemently criticized the drug policy reform movement.

The panel was asked whether drug users should go to jail, a question which was raised during Sir Richard Branson’s appearance at the Home Affairs Select Committee enquiry on drug policy earlier in the week. Sir Richard is a Commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and an advocate of drug policy reform.

The Question Time debate challenged the conventional wisdom that the UK public is unequivocally opposed to drug decriminalization and that political support for a more liberal drug policy is untenable.

On the contrary, it was fascinating to see that the arguments put forward by audience members echoed the views of experts working in the field of drug policy who advocate for decriminalization, such as those put forward by Release in a letter [pdf] to the prime minister last June.

“Addiction is a complex issue and difficult discussions are necessary to understand what works well for those who suffer because of drug abuse,” said one audience member. “If they legalized all drugs tomorrow, I’m pretty sure that everyone here would not go out and buy some heroin…The amount of money that is spent on incarcerating drug users could be better spent on treatment,” said another.

Mark Steel, an isolated voice of reason on the panel, noted that “if you listen to almost anybody who’s close to the problem, they will say the same. Just criminalizing it doesn’t work.” Indeed, a pharmacist in the audience explained that he dispenses methadone to people who use the medicine to break dependence on heroin. Such measures help individuals overcome problematic drug use and can lead to reduced crime rates in communities.

Another audience member pointed to recent cutbacks in law enforcement and questioned whether limited police resources should be devoted to going after people who use drugs.

Has this long-neglected debate shown that there has been a fundamental change in the public mood about drug decriminalization or that the public was not so starkly opposed in the first place? Is it time for UK politicians to follow the lead of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform by not only listening to the expert evidence in support of decriminalization, but also the views of their own constituents?

Learn More:



It's not so much a "disconnect", it's more like a chasm.

I have had a really frustrating exchange with Anne Milton - the minister responsible for the Dept of health here in the UK. I have been asking the government to run a safer use campaign aimed at cannabis to discourage the use of tobacco. The reason for wanting this should be self-evident using information published by the Dept of Health - cannabis isn't strongly addictive whereas tobacco is, cannabis isn't associated with cancer whereas tobacco is and also of course cannabis does not kill whereas tobacco most certainly does. There are a range of other reasons but these are enough for now.

I've made it clear to her that I am not asking for a change in the law, simply a safer us campaign similar to that being run by Cannabis law reform CLEAR called "Tokepure". It could, of course, have a very different slant as long as it carried the same essential message of not smoking cannabis mixed with tobacco. Her repsonse defies logic; She wrote

"The Tokepure argument is clear – that people should be advised that smoking cannabis and tobacco together is more harmful than smoking cannabis without tobacco – as is the government‰Ûªs position - that cannabis and tobacco, whether smoked together or separately are dangerous and should not be used".

So there will be no safer use guidelines given to the millions of mostly young cannabis users, the only message the government will tolerate is "just say no".

That's not a disconnect, it's something much worse.


There's also a disconnect between the public and the political class on the death penalty. While capital punishment proponents often miss the fact that public support for the death penalty rests on certain conditions, namely, if someone kills a police officer, it does suggest that trying to reach conclusions based on a basic binary barometer of 'public support' fails to capture the nuances of the debate. That's not to say I don't agree with your point, just that, with the death penalty thing in mind, you can't have your cake and eat it.

Richard Branson, flamboyant entrepreneur he may be, is perhaps not the best drug reform advocate either given his sketchiness over certain key details. He suggested that the drugs budget be moved from the Home Office to the Department of Health without realising this was already the case. I suppose you could argue that he has the gravitas to move the debate into the public sphere - I'd say its already there, but it suffers from characters who make year dot assumptions that play into the obtuse political class' hands.

One would think that with politicians feeling under pressure to reduce Government spending , de-criminalising drugs would be an easy way to save billions (from police budgets /legal-aid and other legal related costs / reduction in prison population / getting addicts off benefits - no,addiction is not an illness - / getting rid of substitute prescribing etc).
Unfortunately have proved unable to think outside of the box.
I have many years of experience working with addicts . To my mind criminalisation only makes a complicated situation much more complicated and much more difficult to manage .
My speciality is alcohol abuse . Alcohol is legal , although - with cigarettes - by far the most dangerous of drugs .Yet because alcohol is legal my clients with alcohol issues are second class citizens within the treatment community (as huge chunks of funding come through Criminal Justice - and people with alcohol issues , gererally , are not criminals)!

As much as it pains me to say it as I would love to see a change to evidence based drug policy, but at a time of high unemployment the government can't afford the backlash of adding to that list. The whole criminal justice system would have to be scaled back to accommodate the drop in offenders. As the Netherlands found a couple of years ago, not having the constant supply of cannabis users to keep the prison numbers up resulted in them approaching Belgium and the other surrounding countries for prisoners to fill the spaces. The whole drug treatment industry would have to be overhauled to take account of the change in attitude, one would hope more money would be spent improving services but I don't think that would happen for the reason below.

Regulatory systems cost money to set up, something I can't for the life of me see either of the mainstream parties here spending money doing, especially since they have spent the last 2 years brainwashing us to believe there is no money.

Prohibition is a cause of so many of society's problems we see today and our society is crying out for a change. Will it happen here before the US Federal Government caves in and ends the WoD and the UN Convention is rewritten? Don't bet on it.

as a newly formed page on fb trying to represent the welsh there are many who whould speak out against the failed system wich has cost billions of pounds and cost millions of deaths, although i havent seen this ep of QT yet i can asure you i will and even now before watching i can say i agree the topic of prohabition not just on cannabis but other drugs needs to be disscused and the public should have a say

Prohibition is here to stay. Why won't drugs be legalized? Its complex, but in a nutshell, its money which makes the world go round, remember? Drugs are one of the top 3 trades in the world, along with oil and weapons. Though members of organized crime gangs make most of the profits, 'legit' members of the power elite indirectly suck up much of the profits thru the usual corrupt financial dealings. Counter-argument: this is a conspiracy theory. Yes, that is the modern way of dismissing any rational argument: call it a conspiracy theory, the rantings of paranoids. Beam me up or burn me down.

I don't think the public gets told the whole story in some cases, especially where there are strong financial motives involved. For example, in the case of tobacco-related deaths: Sweden reduced their smoking-related mortality by 40%, by allowing and promoting access to Snus, their specially-processed oral tobacco. The smoking death rate in Sweden is the lowest in any developed country by a wide margin. They reduced the number of smokers to 12% of the population. The cost of this phenomenal reduction in sickness and death was extremely low to the state because Snus is a consumer product.

In contrast, other comparable countries reduce their smoking prevalence by 0.4% per year, at a substantial cost (c. £180m annually in the UK). It is therefore clearly shown that consumer-based Harm Reduction is orders of magnitude more efficient, and considerably cheaper. In fact the official policy in places like the UK can be described as inept bungling, and some say fraud - because there are distinct winners here and it's not the public:

It really seems the UK has a completely different stand on drugs and drug abuse from the US. Interesting post. Thanks!

Add your voice