Yet, for those caught up in the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, the harm can still be horrific. Last Friday, just four days into 2019, police executing a search warrant on a house shot and killed a man who had, just months before, been a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces. Two men were arrested following the raid for possession of cannabis.
This is an extreme case, to be sure, and thankfully the British police forces rarely act in the same trigger-happy way as those in other countries when dealing with drug suspects. However, this is only the most tragic, and most public, example of the harm caused.
Until recently, our restrictions on medical marijuana prevented sufferers of certain illnesses from accessing huge potential benefits. And were it not for the publicity around the recent heart-breaking cases of epileptic children being denied access to cannabis oil, these constraints would likely still exist.
Despite claims that we do not police low-level drug use, Britain did manage to prosecute some 127,000 people between 2011 and 2015 for cannabis possession, and 15,120 people in 2017. In six years, a mass of people, equivalent to the population of Oxford, Cambridge or York trooped through the criminal justice system for possessing marijuana.
At the same time, such arrests, prosecutions and convictions fall most heavily on those least likely to attend the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge and York. According to the charity Release, black and ethnic minority people were between 2.4 and 11.8 times more likely to be convicted for cannabis possession, despite a significantly lower self-reported usage rate.
It isn’t just the human cost, either. Those approximately 160,000 people who have been prosecuted for cannabis possession took up significant amounts of police time. Their trials had to be paid for, along with any legal aid they might require. In the comparatively rare situation that they might receive a custodial sentence, this too costs the taxpayer a small fortune. ISER estimates that the total cost of policing and prosecuting drug offences might cost the exchequer £100m a year, with police claimed to spend up to 1.5 million man-hours working on cannabis-related cases.
Surely the time has come to ask whether these costs – in police hours, public sector costs, and blighted lives – are worth it – and perhaps look abroad for inspiration. Colorado became the first US state to legalise recreation marijuana possession and use in 2012, and the results have been impressive – police, freed from policing cannabis laws, have seen their clearance rates for violent and property crimes improve significantly, a result similarly replicated in Washington State.
Closer to home, Portugal provides another compelling example of the benefits of a more pragmatic drug policy. After Portuguese lawmakers decriminalised the possession and consumption of drugs in 2001, the number of drug-related deaths fell by 80%, coupled with a dramatic decrease in overall drug addiction and associated crime.
Yet whatever your views are on drug reform, surely it is time to confront these questions with real information, rather than slogans. You may agree or disagree with our drug policy. You might consider it too harsh, or too soft. But let no one be in doubt that we are choosing to fight a war on drugs, and we are blighting tens of thousands of lives to do so.