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Experts condemn the UK government’s passport-confiscating drug crackdown

Boris Johnson has proposed measures to target middle class users of class A drugs – but drug law experts say the measures are counterintuitive to dealing with addiction and crime

In a bleak return to the tired ‘war on drugs’ narrative, the British government is reportedly unveiling a ten-year plan that involves confiscating passports and driving licenses from class A drug users. Taking a criminal sanction-led approach rather than a progressive one, the proposals are set to target middle class users and students in an effort to “come down tougher” on “lifestyle users” of illegal drugs.

Rather than attempt to curb addiction, aid recovery, reduce harm, or even explore the scientifically-backed benefits of various drugs in treating mental health disorders and pain management, Westminster’s plans signal a desire to shame casual drug users. Another of the proposed measures is handing the police power to go through dealers’ seized phones and message their contacts with warnings in an attempt to alarm them into changing their behaviour.

“The announcements around the strategy are loaded with moralistic language on how people who use drugs are seen by the state as either criminals, or sick people that need treatment,” says Andre Gomes of Release, the UK’s national centre of expertise on drugs law. “The reality is that nine in ten people who use drugs do so without problematic use.” He adds, however, that “the details on the strategy are still unclear, so the effects that it will have on people are also difficult to predict”.

This, of course, sounds like a chillingly authoritarian policy – and a hypocritical one, given that multiple members of the Tory party have admitted to taking class As themselves, including Boris Johnson. When are we taking his passport away? With the No. 10 Christmas lockdown party scandal raging on, top-level politicians continue to shamelessly evade the very policies they implement. Yet, while white politicians might get free passes to do lines of gear as they please, Black people and other ethnic minorities – who are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white compatriots – would bear the brunt of these new laws, despite using drugs less

The news also comes after traces of cocaine were found in Parliament’s toilets, something that Gomes says shows that “drug use occurs at the highest levels of political representation in this country. If that doesn’t show the futility of the war on drugs, I don’t know what will. Why should people using drugs recreationally or otherwise be persecuted when MPs use drugs with impunity?”

While there’s much to criticise in the proposals, they do also include the largest-ever single increase in investment in treatment and recovery, a measure welcomed by Release. “We believe that the emphasis on drug treatment may be successful in ensuring people can get the support they need to address problematic drug use, particularly for those struggling with addiction,” Gomes says. They also welcome the proposed expansion of ‘diversion schemes’ – police-led programmes that divert people caught committing minor offences away from the criminal justice system.  

“Exploring the expansion of diversion schemes – which seek to reduce the number of people being arrested for drug use – is also a welcome step as it may mean that more people will not have to suffer the life-changing consequences associated with having a criminal record,” he says, adding however that “they will still be subject to police discretion”.

Like many other experts in drug criminality, Release believes that “the decriminalisation of drugs in law would be a great first step to enable more effective measures that could curb the public health crisis of drug-related deaths in the UK. These include the implementation of drug consumption rooms (also known as overdose prevention centres) and harm reduction measures to reduce problematic use – which have also been shown to reduce drug-related offending. Only the full regulation of drugs would allow this industry to transition into a legal and safe structure, with age, health and quality controls to reduce drug-related harms.”

In Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised since 2011, the drug use disorder death rate remains far below the UK’s (Portugal’s is at 0.8 deaths per 100k, while the UK’s is at 4.2). Yet as Gomes points out, “the government, however, is unwilling to even engage in conversations about serious policy changes: ignoring the possibility of significant legislative reform will mean that drug-driven crime will never be truly controlled”.