We live in strange times. Over the past two decades, the trend in most Western countries has been towards legalising or decriminalising drugs such as cannabis in line with scientific evidence about their relative harm. This has mirrored a growing consensus that the war on drugs has had a damaging impact upon societies and communities across the globe. More than 90 countries worldwide have begun at least to introduce harm reduction policies alongside existing drug laws aimed at enforcement and punishment.
Yet, in Britain, this trend has been reversed: cannabis was upgraded from a class C to a class B drug in 2009, and the government ushered in perhaps the most bizarre piece of draconian anti-drugs legislation in history, the Psychoactive Substances Act, in 2016. The Act was uniformly criticised by scientists, academics, and the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, due to its blanket ban on any substance known to have a psychoactive effect—and for its failure to adequately define what was meant by ‘psychoactive’.
This was the culmination of a decade of fierce disagreement between the Home Office and its own drugs advisors, who, time and again, have been rebuked or dismissed for publicly discussing scientific evidence about the relative harm or safety of illegal substances. Think tanks and policy institutes have recently branded UK drugs laws an international “embarrassment”, whilst the British Medical Journal has come out in favour of legalisation, noting that the ban on many recreational drugs is causing huge harm to users.
It is hard to account for this disparity. In Britain, just under half the population supports the legalisation of cannabis (weighed against the 39% who oppose it), whilst 58% of MPs back the use of cannabis for those battling health conditions. And it’s not just left-leaning voters who support socially liberal drugs legislation: four out of ten Conservative voters back the sale of cannabis through licensed shops.
Why, then, has Britain followed such a strangely unique path in framing recent drugs policies with little respect either to the available evidence or to a growing social consensus? A large part of the blame lies with the tabloid press, and in the failure of politicians to stand apart from the machinations of newspaper editors.
It was widely reported at the time that Gordon Brown’s determination, as Prime Minister, to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug—despite there being no new evidence of its harm—was performed at the behest of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. In 2009, the UK’s chief drugs adviser, David Nutt, was sacked by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, for renewing his objection to the reclassification, and arguing that alcohol and tobacco caused more harm to users than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.
The Daily Mail’s glee was palpable: Nutt was the “Nutty Professor” who was luring children into a “spiral of addiction—and death” along with crystal meth promoter Andre Agassi (yes, really). He was a “dangerous man”: a “serial offender” with a “controversial track record” of making the “barmy assertion” that alcohol- and tobacco-related deaths were the most widespread drug-related problems in British society.
“Because the article is published in The Lancet, a respected medical journal… some people may be tempted to take it seriously,” wrote Stephen Glover in the Mail, of a study published by Nutt in 2010. “We live in an age inclined to believe almost everything scientists say, even when it flies in the face of common sense.” I defy you to find a more succinct explanation for the current state of UK drug laws.
Drugs researchers who acknowledge their own history of drug use fare, unsurprisingly, even worse in the British press. Amanda Feilding, founder of the Beckley Foundation, a research centre at the forefront of global drug policy reform, has been dubbed the “Crackpot Countess” who is “using YOUR cash to prove that magic mushrooms are healthy”. “Though articulate,” the Mail reported of the septuagenarian founder of the UN-accredited foundation, which has pioneered the first serious medical studies of psychedelics for half a century, “she is not a particularly good advert for drug use because she looks so fragile and shakes a lot.”
It is difficult to think of another subject in which those who advocate policy reform find themselves subject to such consistently vituperative attacks. Except, perhaps, sex. And any whiff of sex around conversations about drugs legislation is used by the British press to shame its participants mercilessly. When MP Keith Vaz became the subject of a kiss-and-tell story in the Mirror last year, the headline ran: “Married MP Keith Vaz tells prostitutes in his flat: ‘Bring Poppers’.” Vaz was branded a “sex shame MP” who was guilty of using a gay “sex drug”. Controversy ensued as to whether the story had been in the public interest—a fair question, as Vaz was at the time chairing a Select Committee inquiry into prostitution laws, and had formerly led a committee on drug abuse.
But one particular point was repeated, time and again, as if to indicate a clear conflict of interest: Vaz had previously spoken in Parliament against the criminalisation of poppers. When the government proposed to ban them under the Psychoactive Substances Act (despite the fact that poppers are not directly psychoactive), MP Crispin Blunt stood in the Commons to acknowledge his own use of poppers, and argued that a ban on the substance would inflict disproportionate harm on the gay community. Vaz supported Blunt’s objections, noting “that poppers have a beneficial health and relationship effect in enabling anal sex for some men”.
After the revelations about Vaz’s private life emerged, the implication in the media’s calls for his resignation was clear: Vaz was unfit to oversee government inquiries into drugs policy if he himself used drugs. But poppers were, and remain, legal, and Vaz had not committed a crime in using them. Why should this render suspect his argument that poppers are beneficial and relatively harmless? One does not need to sympathise with Vaz’s private life to see that this is no way to conduct a debate: a sense that evidence-based reasoning can be trumped by the retort of “well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Drugs perform a strange double service in the tabloid press. When used by the rich and powerful, drugs perform a role in public shaming, connoting something vaguely scandalous: a quick and easy way to discredit an individual.
It is an often-repeated cliché that British newspapers love nothing more than to drag public figures from the pedestals on which they have been placed, and a headline containing the (always capitalised) words ‘DRUGS SHAME’ is one of the most efficient ways of doing so. The cut-and-paste scandals of celebrities and public figures, from Vaz, to Kate Moss, Nigella Lawson, George Michael, and Daniel Radcliffe, are ultimately presented as a bit of a laugh: an embarrassing nip-slip that offers a glimpse into the sordid private lives of the rich and famous, behind the public face of well-oiled PR machines.
But, when used by young people or by the working classes, drugs are presented in the tabloid media as the ultimate menace to the social fabric. ‘Skunk’ cannabis has been presented with near-obsessive focus as a dangerous narcotic causing an epidemic of mental illness amongst Britain’s youth. A causal link between cannabis use in teenagers and schizophrenia remains unproven, yet studies that find a positive link between the two are disproportionately seized upon by the press, their findings often greatly exaggerated.
Nowhere is this sense of moral panic more evident than in the media reaction to mephedrone, a then legal high, which spiked in popularity in the late 2000s. Scare stories began to surface almost immediately. The Sun ran with a story about a teenager who had allegedly ripped off his own scrotum whilst under the influence of the drug. It later emerged that the story was fake: originating in a joke that had been posted on an online message board.
There was a widespread media outcry over the death of two teenagers who had consumed a cocktail of drugs, one of which was purportedly mephedrone. The substance in question turned out to have actually been methadone—a heroin substitute prescribed to recovering addicts, at the opposite end of the chemical spectrum to mephedrone. The Sun launched a campaign for a ban.
Under intense pressure from the media, the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced in 2010 that mephedrone would be banned “within weeks”. Two government advisors on drugs policy resigned in response to the decision, noting that it had been “unduly based on media and political pressure.” The British Medical Journal noted “it was reminiscent of the media campaign against ecstasy in the late 1980s. Editors presented a bewildering world beyond parents’ reach in which the nation’s youth were being drawn into a labyrinth of addiction, violence, sex, and insanity.”
Who can blame politicians for being reluctant to wade into this morass, and for fearing the reaction of the British press, should they advocate policies aimed at decriminalisation, regulation or harm reduction? Yet this attitude allows the harms caused by the ‘War on Drugs’ to continue.
Indeed, MPs who advocate for an evidence-based approach to drugs policy early in their careers often revert to a “Just Say No” attitude once they achieve high office. In 2002, David Cameron stood in parliament as a member of the home affairs select committee on drug misuse, and pleaded with the Labour government “not to return to a war on drugs. That has been tried and we all know that it does not work.” When Cameron stood for the Conservative leadership in 2005, he pledged to rise above politicians who appealed “to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown... Drugs policy has been failing for decades.”
Yet, by the time of the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, it was difficult to discern Cameron’s earlier liberal attitude towards drugs policy. He responded to Nick Clegg’s plea to scrap jail sentences for soft drugs possession: “I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today. I’m a parent with three children; I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe.” And, in 2016, the Conservative government under Cameron imposed the ultimate ‘crackdown’ with the Psychoactive Substances Act.
It is easy to understand why politicians toughen their stance on drugs in response to media pressure and the wish to be seen as a ‘strong’ leader. Especially when the alternative rhetoric is to be seen to have taken a ‘softer’ or ‘weaker’ approach—something we are seeing, too, in the language of ‘hard’ Brexit. Those who advocate decriminalisation are branded by the media either as dangerous threats to the nation’s children, or as political liabilities with conflicts of interest, whose brains have been addled by their own drug taking.
The War on Drugs has created a rhetoric in the media that makes an evidence-based approach to drugs policy almost impossible. It is difficult to admit that a war is unwinnable: but the rhetorical alternative is to keep fighting a losing battle in the hope that, against all the available evidence, the same old approaches might start working.
We need to change the conversation around drugs legislation. We need to encourage our elected representatives not to revert to the lowest common denominator, succumbing to media pressure to “ban this filth” without reference to the devastating social impact that is caused by criminalising drug use. And we need to start having a public conversation about drugs that listens to scientific evidence.