War on Drugs: Time for a Strategic Retreat?

Nick Clegg speaking at Chatham House, London

During a joint appearance at Chatham House on Wednesday with Sir Richard Branson, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg noted that a considerable number of MPs in Parliament across party lines privately acknowledge the failings of current UK drug policy, yet lack the political courage to do so in public. Following on their op-ed in The Guardian, both Branson and Clegg renewed their call for policy reform towards preferably adopting a mechanism similar to that of Portugal.

The overall endorsement by both individuals appear to be on decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs and specifically targeting police resources towards suppliers. It was noted that the current drug policy in the UK fails to safeguard the wellbeing of users, often caught in a spiral towards severe addiction, due to the lack of support mechanisms. Citing the example of Portugal, Branson and Clegg noted the significant reduction in deaths due to overdose and the spread of HIV due to the use of tainted needles after decriminalisation. Whereas deaths by overdose have reduced to almost single figures in Portugal, they have increased by approximately 30% in the UK, according to Branson. The Deputy Prime Minister was; however, keen to note that decriminalisation is not the legalisation of drugs. He emphasized that the proposed reform towards a model similar to that of Portugal would be a smart way to address public health effects while simultaneously being tougher on drug dealers.

Outlining a potential path towards policy reform, Clegg noted that the recently published Home Office report on the subject could be used as a platform as it provides considerable credence to the argument through a catalogue of evidence. In doing so, a perception change on drugs could potentially occur within the public. However, Clegg and Branson acknowledged the absence of any political will from within Westminster to pursue any drug policy reform – at least in the near future.

While discourse on drug policy reform is much needed across UK politics, it appears that little headway will be made, especially during the current election cycle. The proposal is arguably the most far-reaching set of reforms on drug policy by a main political party in the UK; however, Clegg was unwilling to use drug policy reform as a firm bargaining tool during potential negotiations on a coalition and noted a priority towards fiscal policy. Thus, in order to enable the slight momentum generated towards drugs policy reform to move beyond mere rhetoric, involved stakeholders should reconstitute the issue in a manner which reverberates with the electorate; terrorism.

Sadly, the subject was barely covered by either Branson or Clegg during their appearance, yet, the Taliban have gained significant financial capital through the sale of drugs. During its war on drugs, the international community has attempted a plethora of options to stem the proliferation of poppy farming in Afghanistan – be it through the destruction of farms or providing incentives to grow other products. Yet, it appears that none have significantly disrupted the well-established networks that support terrorism in the region. Some reports even suggest that, given climatic conditions, Afghan farmers prefer to remain in the more profitable – yet illegal – poppy industry. Thus, one possible mode of disrupting the black-market trade of drugs monopolised by terrorist organisations, would be to integrate the product within mainstream trade networks. Similar to the post-prohibition era, the liberalisation of drug policy is likely to make illegal trade networks redundant and thereby mitigate a source of significant funding for terrorism. As such, if the UK and its allies are to succeed in its War on Terrorism, ending the War on Drugs may well become a necessary step.

Kithmina V. Hewage is a postgraduate student of International Public Policy at University College London, and a former undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University.

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