(RE)think piece

Rethinking drugs: criminalisation is causing harm

Rethinking drugs: criminalisation is causing harm

Stephen Walcott

While there is little evidence of the efficacy of criminalisation to curb drug use, the disproportionate impact of punitive interventions on the most disadvantaged communities has been extensively documented over the last decades. So why are Governments still pushing ahead with the so-called ‘war on drugs’? In this piece, Stephen Walcott, previously a Researcher at the Police Foundation (now at leading cross-party think tank Demos), argues that criminalising people for using drugs does little to improve health and social inequalities reduce offending or protect the public purse.

The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) (MDA) has failed on its own merits – to prevent and control the use and supply of illicit drugs. The obsession with enforcement-led, punitive ‘solutions’ to drugs is tired, ineffective and, in fact, harmful.

Drug-related issues create significant demand on the police – from attending a person who has overdosed to conducting a stop and search, and from responding to a theft which seeks to fund addiction to attending a serious violence incident involving a young person exploited into county lines.

But this is where we need to rethink and reset – drugs are not the problem.

Problematic drug use and associated harm are related to inequality and poverty. Addiction exploits social disadvantage, mental health weaknesses and fragility after childhood trauma. The MDA simply criminalises people and exacerbates inequality – it is our laws and policies which make drugs harmful.

In the long term, in line with public opinion, we should reconsider how drugs are regulated for health, economic and social reasons. Health and scientific evidence show prohibition itself creates avoidable danger. A third of all drug-related deaths in Europe happen in the UK.

Last year 4,859 people died from drug poisoning in England and Wales, the highest figure since records began in 1993.[1] We must shift our focus to making drugs and drug consumption less dangerous.

There are also economic reasons. Models of legalising cannabis, for example, offer significant tax opportunities. The direct, indirect and intangible harms of drugs in the England [2] cost the economy around £19 billion per year. Furthermore, the associated costs of people with drug problems – such as unemployment, mental health and homelessness – amount to £4.5 billion. [3]

It is nonsensical that supporting and safeguarding people with problematic substance use, rather than issuing criminal records which can detriment opportunities, is fiscally beneficial, yet just over half a billion pounds is spent on treatment and prevention. Despite the extra funding for drug treatment services promised by the government last year, which is welcome, emphasis on enforcement remains.  

The police-led enforcement approach to drugs creates numerous social problems:

  • £1.4 billion is spent on drug-related police enforcement and criminal justice system costs per year in England. A further £5.5 billion is spent on drug-related crime. It is resource-intensive and ineffective. For example, despite being justified as a power to tackle serious violence, most (69 per cent) stops and searches are for drugs. [4] A majority of these are for possession rather than supply. There is however plenty of evidence to show stop and search is ineffective at reducing crime. Rates of drug use remain high and there is no suggestion that drugs have become harder to obtain or made less harmful.
  • The policing of drugs is socially and racially disproportionate, which sits uncomfortably alongside the depressing historical (racist) context within which the ‘war on drugs’ was enacted. Black people are eight times more likely to be subject to a drug search (and on weaker grounds) despite drug finds being no higher [5] and lower self-reported drug use. [6] This disproportionality also extends to the use of force and criminal justice outcomes. This leads to the suggestion that the policing of drugs is rarely about the drugs (in the case to stop and search, the emphasis is on cannabis), but is instead used for social control. Not only is this unjustified, but it also serves as a significant threat to police legitimacy, trust and confidence.
  • Police contact can be counterproductive. Evidence shows contact can be traumatic and anxiety-inducing, which for children can be detrimental to academic performance. Also, in line with labelling theory, law-abiding behaviour does not equate to a reduced likelihood of being stopped and searched but being stopped is associated with future unlawful behaviour.
  • Related to this, the Home Office identifies ‘unintended consequences’ of an enforcement approach such as serious violence. Criminal records can perpetuate a cycle of disadvantage and crime.
  • Harm reduction approaches are a postcode lottery. Drug diversion programmes provide people found in possession of small quantities of drugs the opportunity to engage in community resolution, drug treatment and wider support, without being cycled through the criminal justice system. Dealing with crime out of court promotes desistance from reoffending, is cost-effective, increases victim satisfaction (where appropriate) and has public support. They can also reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. However, these only exist in around a quarter of police force areas. Additionally, some police officers in some police forces carry naloxone, an anti-overdose drug, but this is also inconsistent across the country.

The UK has a great opportunity to learn from different models of reform in countries more progressive on drug use and supply prohibition. Indeed, the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO) both recommend models of decriminalisation. But for policing and crime, it will be important to consider numerous questions:

  • How much police and criminal justice resource would be saved and where should this be redistributed to?
  • Would it mean better prioritisation and targeting of more serious offences?
  • Would ethnic minority groups continue to be policed disproportionately?
  • Would it boost legitimacy if the police no longer had to police drugs?
  • Would it have an impact on serious violence?
  • Would another commodity replace drugs as the fuel for organised crime?
  • Would the exploitation of children be reduced?
  • What would be the impact on other crime types such as theft?

However, we also need to look short term – the case for a public health approach to drugs has never been stronger. Economic crises tend to mean cuts to public services (including mental health and drug treatment services), and fewer employment and housing opportunities. Sadly, the worst consequences of the UK’s latest economic crisis will fall on the poorest and already most deprived, meaning more poverty.

Recent YouGov polling shows the stress and anxiety resulting from the inconceivably high cost of living is driving higher rates of drug use. A staggering 32 per cent of people have said either they or someone close to them had relapsed into substance use between March and November last year. 61 per cent of these said the cost-of-living crisis was the most significant trigger.[7]

With drug dependence (and associated harm) concentrated among the most deprived, the cost-of-living crisis will logically cause further drug-related harm among those already most marginalised. Many problematic drug users have a history of poverty, poor mental health and trauma – cycling them (and low-level drug users) through the criminal justice system does nothing to support them or reduce harm.

Clearly, the police cannot and should not be responsible for solving such a significant social problem – police contact itself indicates a system failure. But there are public health and harm reduction policies the police can follow within the current legal framework (often subject to funding, which Police and Crime Commissioners can support). These should be based on a principle of minimal intervention, but thoughtful intervention when appropriate:

  • Diverting people found in possession of drugs away from the criminal justice system, to help address the underlying causes of drug use
  • Referring people to treatment (including Heroin Assisted Treatment, Opioid Substitution Treatment and Overdose Prevention Centres), education or safe consumption facilities.
  • Improving and reducing the use of stop and search
  • Being trauma-informed: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to developmental trauma and the impact of these can be exacerbated by external factors including structural inequalities. People exposed to four or more ACEs are 16 times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin. The police should avoid retraumatising people and ask “what has happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”
  • Carrying naloxone.

Our drug laws and how they are enforced are exacerbating social and racial inequality. They are making drug related harm worse, not better. It’s time for the UK to learn from drug reform in other countries. We need a change of approach, it’s a matter of justice.


[2] UK-wide figures unavailable.


[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-powers-and-procedures-stop-and-search-and-arrests-england-and-wales-year-ending-31-march-2021



[7] https://www.actiononaddiction.org.uk/yougoll-poll-2022-results-story

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