Tabloid newspapers have been described as “our main enemies” in the fight for drug policy reform in the United Kingdom, during a parliamentary meeting on narcotic legislation. Molly Meacher, a cross-bench life peer in the House of Lords, asserted that reform is being hindered by the vitriolic support for drug prohibition in the country’s most widely read newspapers.
Brian Paddick, a former Police Commander for the London Borough of Lambeth and a current life peer, corroborated Meacher’s point, stating that “we absolutely have to get over stigma and hysteria around drug taking that we see in tabloid papers; we have to focus on reducing harm”. The fear of negative press coverage, Paddick claimed, is a primary reason why policymakers are hesitant to alter the status quo of drug prohibition.
Paddick was on the receiving end of the tabloid press’ opposition to drug reform in 2003, when his opposition to the criminalisation of cannabis users was seized upon by the Daily Mail, and used to attack his character – as well as his position as police chief.
In 2010, the UK Drug Policy Commission undertook a content analysis of newspaper coverage of drug users. The report found that “drug users were more likely to be condemned than empathised with in all newspapers, but were most likely to be condemned in the tabloid press, where around a fifth of users were condemned”.
The report also contrasted the differing headlines produced by broadsheets and tabloids in response to the same stories, highlighting the melodramatic rhetoric used by the latter during a 2009 debate over the use of methadone for heroin addicts. The Daily Express – a tabloid paper – published two stories on the subject, the first entitled “Alarm at drugs for convicts”, and the second with the headline “Jail drug bill soars to £40m”. Conversely, the Independent – a broadsheet – avoided hysteria by asking “The Big Question: Is methadone being over-prescribed as a treatment for drug addiction?”
Methadone, a controlled drug used to treat opiate addicts, is utilised to reduce the harm posed by heroin and similar substances. The staunch opposition to its provision voiced by the Daily Express is indicative of the tabloid’s hostility to drug policy reform and harm reduction.
Professor David Nutt – former chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – described allegations that Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, had exerted influence over British drug policy. Professor Nutt, in an interview with the British Journal Review said, “The rumour is that [Prime Minister Gordon] Brown did a deal with Paul Dacre. Dacre said there are three things you must do to get Mail support, one of which is to reclassify cannabis”. Indeed, within one year of becoming PM, Brown reclassified cannabis from Class C to Class B – a category in which possession and supply can garner up to five or fourteen years imprisonment, respectively.
Professor Nutt was sacked from the ACMD less than a year after the cannabis classification, and two months after writing a research paper that described cannabis as safer than alcohol.
Reforms to UK drug legislation are few and far between, and when they do occur they seem to further entrench prohibition within policy. The most prominent drug law to be passed by Parliament in recent times is the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, due to come into force on April 6th. This authoritarian piece of legislation will ban “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”, while excluding so-called “legitimate substances”, such as alcohol and tobacco.
Paddick claims that the Psychoactive Substances Act sets a dangerous precedent, as it is essentially the government insisting that “people are not allowed to do something unless [they] say that its OK”. Mike Trace, Chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium, denounced the legislation; “[the Act] says that a whole swathe of human behaviour is banned”. Such legislation has already been proved to have negative consequences; a similar law instituted in Ireland effectively reduced the number of ‘head shops’ while considerably increasing the number of drug-induced deaths”. However, as the tabloid press continues to blame drug deaths on users – rather than failed government policies – it is easy for policymakers to ignore the correlation between prohibition and drug deaths.
As the three most widely read newspapers in the UK – the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Evening Standard – remain firmly opposed to most aspects of drug policy reform, it seems unlikely that policymakers will consider legislative change. Experts suggest that politicians are fully aware of the drug war’s failure, but continue to stay silent to avoid acknowledging the ineffectiveness of prohibition. Essentially, as Mike Trace asserted, “the UK government really doesn’t want to talk about drug policy”.