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UK Drugs Policy

UK Drugs Policy
Von Euronews
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The latest figure for 'labelled' public expenditure on drugs in the UK is estimated at €1.3 billion. Expenditure has decreased by at least 0.5%...


The latest figure for ‘labelled’ public expenditure on drugs (i.e spending that is planned in advance) in the UK is estimated at €1.3 billion. Expenditure has decreased by at least 0.5 percent. Unlabelled drug expenditure (spending that is not planned in advance including law enforcement costs for drug offences, drug-related crime, drug-related health costs, personal social services and drug-related welfare benefits) is estimated at €7.5 billion, 70 percent of which is believed to cover law enforcement expenditure.

The most recent research into drug-related expenditure in the UK estimated a total cost of €8.8 billion, 42 percent of which was “proactive government expenditure”, and 58 percent reactive. Drug-related expenditure, therefore, accounted for for 1.1 percent of all public sector expenditure on services, or 0.49 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

UK laws controlling drug use are notoriously complicated. The Misuse of Drugs Act controls supply and use of both medicinal drugs and those with no medical use. It divides drugs into three classes (A, B and C). The law defines a series of offences, including unlawful supply, intent to supply, import or export (‘trafficking’ offences) and unlawful production.

The Act also prohibits unlawful possession, giving the police the right to stop, detain and search people where there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they are in possession of a ‘controlled drug’ (a drug subject to the Misuse of Drugs Act).

This is a controversial policy, with some people believing that it has caused racial disparities in drug policing.

Combined research by Release (a registered charity and national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law), and the London School of Economics (LSE) found just that, stating:

“Drug policing is dominating stop and search, (…) much of this activity is focused on low level drug possession charges and (…) black and Asian people are being disproportionally targeted.”

Executive Director of Release, and co-author of the report resulting from the research, Niamh Eastwood, states:

“This research shows that stop and search is not about finding guns or knives but about the police going out and actively looking for people who are in possession of a small amount of drugs, mainly cannabis.”

According to the report, police in England and Wales stop and search someone for drugs every 58 seconds. More than half a million stop and searches for drugs took place in 2009-10, but only 7 percent resulted in arrest.

Drug use is lower amongst black and Asian people than among white people. However, black people and those identifying themselves as mixed race, were stopped and searched for drugs at six times the rate of white people, while Asians were stopped and searched at 2.5 times the rate.

Results of the research certainly seem to show disparity between the way police treat different races on the subject of drugs.

Taken at face value, results of the Release-LSE research show a certain racial disparity in drug policing, with differences in responses to possession, charges brought forward and even sentencing for similar offences.

Michael Shiner, co-author of the report and senior lecturer in the department of social policy at LSE, blamed the “shocking” results on the policy, and police pressure to reach targets:

“It is shocking that police officers are spending so much time targeting minor drug offences, rather than focusing on more serious matters. This is not the result of a carefully considered strategy, but is the unintended consequence of reforms that have created a perverse incentive structure, rewarding officers for going after easy pickings rather than doing good police work.

“(…) Black people are more likely to get a criminal record than white people, are more likely to be taken to court and are more likely to be fined or imprisoned for drug offences because of the way in which they are policed, rather than because they are more likely to use drugs.”

Shiner believes the decriminalisation of drug possession offences is the answer to what he describes as the “needless stop and search of hundreds of thousands of innocent people every year.”

The Independent newspaper has echoed his sentiments on several occasions, even devoting an editorial piece to the debate, entitled 'The time has come to decriminalise all drugs' in which the editor outlines their argument for the “swift decriminalisation of all drugs”, as “individuals should be free to make their own choices, providing they do no harm to others.”


Between 2007 and 2012, the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) carried out a review of the UK drugs policy. The aim of the review was twofold: to provide an independent and objective analysis of the UK drug policy and to ensure that this was used by UK governments when considering policy, and by the media and public to encourage a wider, informed debate.

The review found that countries within the UK were divided over the amount of control they would like over drug policy. In Scotland, for example 68 percent of MSPs want more control. There is a more even split among the Welsh Assembly, with 44 percent for more control, and 48 percent against.

The results of the review are as follows:

  • There is little evidence that drug policy influences either the number of drug users or the share of users who are dependent.
  • It is unreasonable to judge a country’s drug policy by the levels of drug use in that country.
  • Government drug policy needs to focus further effort on reducing the levels of drug-related harms through improved harm-reduction services.
  • Imprisoning drug offenders for relatively substantial periods does not appear to represent a cost effective response.
  • The UK invests relatively little in independent evaluation of the impact of drug policies, especially enforcement. This needs redressing.

While the review does not address the issue of discrimination, or the decriminalisation of drugs, it does acknowledge that changes need to be made to the existing policy and suggests that money will need to be spent in order to improve it.

This sentiment is echoed by the politicians polled. When asked for an opinion on the statement “Current policies are effective in tackling the problems caused by illegal drugs,” at least 60 percent of politicians disagreed. The majority of Labour MPs (83 percent) and coalition MPs (69 percent) polled agreed that: “The process of making policy about illegal drugs in the UK should make more use of evidence and research than it currently does.”


However, in contrast with the views of the Independent newspaper and the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF), only a minority of politicians (between a quarter and a third) support consideration of changes to the drug laws so that possession of small quantities of currently illegal drugs for personal use is not treated as a criminal offence.

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