It could be anyone’s child: the tragedies behind UK drug laws
After her son’s arrest for drug possession during his time as a student, Hope embarked on a personal mission to reform drug policy, aiming to prevent other families from experiencing the same tragedy. Alongside other affected families, Hope and her husband have dedicated over 25 years to campaigning against the criminalisation of drug use and advocating for harm reduction approaches. In this piece, she presents a compelling argument for a complete overhaul of the current drug system, emphasising that when any child can be affected, it becomes a shared responsibility for all.
Long ago, I thought little about drugs and even less about the laws that attempt to control them. That changed forever in 1995 when our student son was arrested. He shared a flat with university friends whom all enjoyed clubbing and smoking cannabis. To them, it was normal behaviour, as it is now, for so many students. He’d taken his turn, and deciding it was safer and cheaper, he got enough drugs for the term. They were kept in the communal sitting room, and it was ‘pay as you go.’ When caught, he told the truth, and his fate was sealed. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Now, I know a lot about drugs and even more about drug laws. I know that drugs are mainly dangerous because the law will not permit a controlled or regulated supply, meaning demand must be met by criminals. No one knows what they are taking, and this lottery claims an escalating number of lives. At the same time, thousands of otherwise law-abiding, decent, people are criminalised, even imprisoned, every year. For most, this is far more damaging than any drug they may have used.
Luckily, my husband and I discovered Transform Drug Policy Foundation early on. Then, it was the only organisation working to get the law changed to bring the supply of all drugs under legal control. Some years later, Transform started the campaigning group Anyone’s Child. All the members have family or friends who have been harmed or killed as a direct result of the UK’s drug laws. It was harrowing to meet so many parents who had lost children, especially as those deaths were avoidable. It’s amazing to see their strength to fight for change so that what happened to them might not happen to anyone else.
We have campaigned for decades. We have talked to our MP, taken petitions to Downing Street, written articles and letters in the national press, been on the radio and television, given written and oral evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee and held public meetings. I wish I could say this had an effect on drug policy. It may have changed the minds of many, but the UK government is still fatally addicted to prohibition.
So British prisons remain over-filled with non-violent ‘offenders.’ Criminal gangs control the drug supply, growing ever more violent, protecting their vast profits. These gangs continue to prey on the young and vulnerable. Every year brings more accidental overdose deaths, while others struggle to get the help they need. Damaging drug use is usually a symptom of deeper problems such as poverty, abuse and trauma. How can punishment ever be an answer to those?
Worldwide, though, there has been encouraging progress in drug reform.
Portugal decriminalised drugs, for personal use, in 2000. Canada and 21 American states allow recreational adult use of cannabis. Most European countries support drug checking so people know the strength and content of their drugs. There are safe consumption rooms in many countries that have saved thousands of lives. Switzerland has been especially successful with heroin clinics where those who rely on it can be given uncontaminated, measured doses, enabling them to carry on with their lives and jobs. They may still need heroin to function, but they are stable, alive, and don’t have to steal or commit crimes to get their drugs. Heroin, unlike alcohol, doesn’t damage internal organs. Its greatest danger is overdosing, prevented in the clinics. These are all measures that keep everyone safer.
Unfortunately, the UK Government take no interest in changes and successes in other countries. They ignore science, refusing to accept that alcohol and tobacco harm and kill more people than any of the drugs they have prohibited. Their policy is shaped by prejudice and false morality. It feeds on stigma.
Worryingly, the UK has also politicised drug policy. We have a two-party system, so will always have a Conservative or Labour Government. Each believes being “tough on drugs” wins votes. They try to outdo each other with ever harsher “crackdowns” and ramping up punishments – making Cannabis a “Class A drug”, banning “laughing gas”, targeting “middle-class recreational users” and threatening to “take away drug users’ passports”. It’s out of control. Anyone who questions such ideas is condemned for being “soft on drugs.” Smaller parties, like the Greens and Liberal Democrats, have excellent drug policies, that will never see daylight. Many do realise the desperate need for changing our drug laws – they just don’t have the power.
Most were shocked by our son’s punishment, knowing the same thing could easily happen to their children. I’m often told that it isn’t the same now. Even a senior policeman said that recently. But nothing has changed. The Misuse of Drugs Act remains set in stone. Few advertise that their child has been sent to prison for a drug offence, but it happens all the time. Not long ago we met a couple devastated when their son was locked up for a similar “crime”, also for two and a half years. They were broken, and their pain brought back what our family went through years ago. It also made us certain that the fight for a sensible, humane drug policy, matters. We will never give up.
I still hope to see positive change in the UK in my lifetime, but time is running out. It is very disappointing for me, but a tragedy for many others who will be criminalised, imprisoned or die. Who will they be? It could be anyone’s child.
The Government has a choice. Either they re-think and reset drug policy to put health and life first, or they create ever more victims of arbitrary, dangerous, and cruel laws.
To learn more about Hope’s story and fight for policy reform, you can visit Anyone’s Child’s website. Other resources include LEAP, a campaigning group made up of current and former law enforcement officials who are advocating for drug law reform, and The Loop, a drug-checking charity and harm-reduction support and advice service.