Government myopia strikes again in proposal for toughening consequences of recreational drug use

The government’s myopia strikes again in its proposals for toughening punishments for recreational drug use

By Dr Giulia Zampini

On July 27th, 2021, the UK government published its response to Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs. Black’s review is decent in many respects, but quite thin when it comes to understanding and representing the issue of recreational drug use in British society. 

In her commentary about the Black review, Isabella Ross argues that:

Little nuance in the types of and reasons for drug use is provided, offering an overly simplistic depiction of all drug use as problematic. Its section on recreational drug use pins the onus of the dangers of recreational drug use onto consumers, a reductive perspective that inhibits policy reform.

In this regard, an instrumental moral model has prevailed in Black’s analysis. Recreational drug taking is constructed as an individual level problem disconnected from its political economic, socio-cultural, and spatial settings. Then, the harms associated with illicit drug markets and stigma are used as the moral justification to address recreational use. The main mechanism chosen for targeting the problem is behavioural interventions. Below is an extract from the review to illustrate this process:

Although many recreational drug users do not consider their use to be problematic, recreational use carries risks and it fuels the illicit drug market. The risks include dependence, health harms, overdose, the health risks associated with a contaminated or adulterated or unusually strong batch, and negative impacts on users’ everyday lives and families.

For recreational drug users, we need to find ways to change attitudes and behaviour.

We recommend that the government (either HO or DHSC) establish an innovation fund to research which interventions are most effective at changing the behaviour of recreational drug users.

Behavioural approaches are, in my view, a controversial territory to navigate. Much behavioural research is constructed and conducted in closed experimental settings, which do not easily translate into complex real-world situations. Also, behavioural approaches can display a tendency to isolate the behaviour (e.g. drug-taking) and treat it as if disconnected from other social, cultural and situational dynamics. 

Black is at least calling for investment in research, which in principle is never a bad thing. However, recommendations to produce more research evidence is a political tool often used to shy away from policy reform, ignoring all the research that is already out there. Also, if the purpose of such research is to change behaviour, side-lining the structural and systemic determinants of drug use and drug markets, ignoring the motivations and experiences of drug users, then such a call is rather narrowminded in its approach to what research is and what it’s for. 

Now enters the government. Here’s an extract from their response to the Black review, which proposes

Addressing so-called ‘recreational’ drug use by too many in our society who, knowingly or otherwise, support a dangerous and exploitative market and whose behaviour is both criminal and anti-social. This means being smart and developing tougher and more meaningful consequences to help reduce demand and shift behaviour and attitudes in those sections of society where drug use is currently seen as acceptable.

In the space of a few days, we went from a recommendation to invest in more research to a decision to toughen consequences for recreational drug use. This stance is fuelled by the non-evidence-based assumption that increasing punitiveness will deter drug use and change behaviour. 

There is no evidence that punitive measures are successful deterrents; indeed, this was demonstrated by a Home Office publication back in 2014. Yet this government’s (and many governments before this one) favourite knee-jerk response to the drug problem strikes again: make it a behavioural problem, a moral choice issue, put the onus of responsibility on the individual, and free yourself of all political responsibility and the need to understand recreational drug use. Everybody wins. 

Except they don’t. Leaving aside the point that morality does not operate as a zero sum game, as beautifully discussed in this recent academic study on the moral disengagement strategies of cocaine users, the adoption of tougher measures, or more punitiveness, has never produced its intended outcomes in relation to drugs and other crimes more generally.

Meanwhile, more money will be spent on trying to enforce these tougher measures, wasting valuable police time, and not much will change apart from possibly more people ending up with criminal records and losing their jobs, something which may even escalate their drug use. 

Brilliant. 

The government compulsively continues to beat to the rhythm of the same drum. In its ‘Beating Crime’ plan, also launched on July 27th, the Home Office proudly announced they will be

Increasing the police’s use of drug testing on arrest to crack down on recreational drug use.

They go on,

We need to ensure there are consequences for those who regard their drug use as harmless or recreational, and we intend to bring forward proposals in this area.

Cannot wait to see what these proposals look like, though I am not holding my breath for anything enlightened. The longstanding call by medical authorities, academics, drug user advocacy groups, NGOs and professionals in the sector to decriminalise the possession of all substances continues to fall on deaf ears. The government is not willing to consider that the night-time economy, which is a core part of late capitalism and will be a core part of the post-covid economic recovery, is fuelled by recreational drug use. Hypocritically though, they are happy to keep pouring the pints. 

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