Writing by Frankie Ryan-Casey. Illustration by Antonia Popescu (@amp_aesthetics).
For almost six decades, British governments have been engaged in a futile conflict they won’t ever win. It is a damaging endeavour, stubbornly continued in the face of mounting casualties and eye-watering costs. True enough, that sounds characteristic of much of Western defence policy in the post-war period. But the war on drugs is no ordinary conflict. Rifles and drones certainly feature on the battlefield, but their use doesn’t characterise the skirmishes. Yet make no mistake, this war is still demonstrably violent in other ways and its desperate continuation is disastrous.
As lockdown comes to an end, the British state is primed for a renewed offense, and through the 26th to the 29th of August, Creamfields dance festival was the latest arena for the War on Drugs. An official Cheshire Police twitter account, ‘@CreamfieldsCops’ (no, this isn’t a joke, they chose that cringe-inducing handle themselves) has spent recent weeks churning out a slurry of threatening fear-mongering. The force has made their desire for a heavy-handed approach clear, with images of an armed police presence, drones, and scores of sniffer dogs splashed all over social media. One post from the 21st of August is particularly disturbing and inadvertently reveals the destructive nature of anti-drug policing:
“Kate took drugs into the event for her friends. This year, she can’t attend, as she is in prison”, the post reads, signed off with the hashtag ‘NotWorthTheRisk’.
Much can be discerned from this brief tweet, and none of it paints Cheshire police in a favourable light. The dance festival was, unsurprisingly, cancelled in 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. For Kate to still be serving a sentence for possession of a controlled substance in 2019 seems bizarre. By the police’s own admission within the tweet, she was not a part of some complex and potentially violent drug trafficking scheme. I suppose that with this woman behind bars for a long time, the people of Britain can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and we can all begin to feel much safer knowing she won’t do us any harm.
Of course, such punishments are patently absurd, and enforcing them is detrimental. To send a citizen into the British prison system is damaging; a system whose ability to chew people up and spit them back out is evidenced by the fact the United Kingdom has one of the highest reoffending rates in the West, with an eye-watering 29% of ex-convicts committing another offence within 12 months after being freed. To strip them from their families and friends, some of whom might depend on them, causes a harmful ripple effect. In an age of increased poverty and destitution, destroying a person’s record with these ‘serious’ convictions is ruinous, particularly when rehabilitation and mental health support is so lacklustre.
If Kate has a drug problem, which just like alcohol abuse is unfortunately common, then prison is no respite. Instead, with excessively dangerous and addictive substances like ‘spice’ becoming rampant within dilapidated prisons, addicts are often destined to continue to ruin their minds and bodies. These people are sick and deserve humane treatment for what is widely and correctly recognised as a serious mental illness. Yet the War on Drugs treats them as discardable scum, an ‘enemy’ who must be shown no mercy.
British drug policy is a disaster on its own terms, based on hypocritical logic that collapses spectacularly under any real skepticism, and it hasn’t made any of us much safer. Any progressive movement must take on a policy of decriminalisation if not outright legalisation, halting an unjust war that has claimed far too many already.
This issue isn’t unique in human history. Prohibition in America is derided today as an abject failure, creating a black market that became quickly overran by ruthless groups of organised criminals that the authorities couldn’t handle. The United States attempt to ban the booze fell flat on its face, but not before countless lives were ruined as part of a self-defeating bow to moral panic. The War on Drugs is just more of this same brand of dangerous ignorance. Supposedly designed to keep people safer, it does the exact opposite. An unregulated market means untested and unpredictable drugs that endangers even sensible users. A black market means it is violently controlled by criminal gangs, a situation that endangers people in disadvantaged communities in particular, as poverty is intrinsically linked to violent crime. Police time and resources have been stretched until they are paper thin, trying to terminate drugs, which has proven unsuccessful. Criminalisation simply isn’t working.
Even using the government’s own figures illustrates that they are losing the war – badly. According to GOV.UK statistics, drug use has remained at a similar level for the past ten years aside from a recent surge that estimates at least 12% of people in Scotland use drugs. Drug use among children has risen over the past five years. With 76 deaths per million in the U.K. per annum, and an eye-watering 229 per million deaths in Scotland, more are dying now than ever before. This makes Scotland the drug death capital of Europe. With more deaths, more addiction, and more use than ever before, it is painfully obvious that current policy requires a revolutionary rethink.
Continued criminalisation means improper education, dangerously mixed substances and a deadly shortage of often inaccessible testing kits, a shortage that Edinburgh University has proved incapable of solving for its own population. Practically every shred of research and collection of statistics show that the drug policies curated by the government and private institutions alike are unsuccessful and even deadly.
Perhaps the only argument for criminalisation that at least pretends to be based on principles of justice is the idea that Kate and others like her do deserve to be victims in this war, because drug possession and consumption is automatically immoral. West Yorkshire Police recently echoed this sentiment, arguing in a Facebook post that festival drug use funds child exploitation.
Make no mistake, the modern-day drugs trade isn’t pretty. But this argument is backwards. Criminalisation means the trade is ran by crooks, for crooks, and these people are eager to exploit whoever they can. The War on Drugs doesn’t help vulnerable people who are exploited by traffickers, it jeopardises them by making the industry an illegal free for all.
Moreover, it is difficult to imagine any sort of ethical consumption under globalised capitalism. The clothes you are wearing were almost certainly sourced from a sweatshop. The device you are reading this on is no different. Any precious jewellery you own is likely sourced from environmentally catastrophic mining practices. In short, drug consumption isn’t ethical but in this capitalist profit driven environment – almost every activity is unethical. So if you need to buy affordable jeans from a fashion store, use a fossil fuel car, eat food from a supermarket or use a smartphone – feel free to light a joint. That isn’t to say consumers, by avoiding fast fashion and cutting out meat, for example, can’t make ethically sound choices. So long as you actively resist the systems that perpetuate misery for most of humanity whilst inevitably having to engage with them to live a fruitful life, don’t allow West Yorkshire police or anyone in positions of authority to guilt trip you into complying.
The War on Drugs is an abject failure. The arguments that sustain it are hypocritical, and the project is a disaster on its own terms. It is time that Britain raised the white flag at Creamfields and elsewhere, freed and supported the countless conflict victims, and opted for a drugs policy that benefits us all, or atleast just works.