Zero-tolerance policies are a knee-jerk reaction to the drug epidemic, and Sussex University’s implementation of this policy will follow in a long line of failed attempts. Prohibition against drugs has been enforced since the 20th century; however, in the 21st century the illicit drugs trade is as profitable and widespread as ever before. Many will object that there is no alternative to zero-tolerance on drugs; that anything less would be admitting defeat and that the billions of pounds spent on prohibition has been wasted. Well, it’s essential that we do admit it.
Attempts to both seize drugs and reduce drug usage have failed. The UK government spends an estimated £16 billion on enforcing the prohibition of drugs, yet according to Professor Neil McKeganey, from the Centre for Drug Misuse Research, only 1% of heroin used in Scotland is actually detected, with similar statistics throughout the UK. The Global Commission report on drug policy cities that between 1998-2008 worldwide usage of cocaine has increased 27% and opiates by a staggering 35%. Therefore spending £16 billion a year with a troubled economy, to only seize a tiny percentage of the drugs within the UK and see a rise in the usage of drugs, is unjustified and a failure of policy.
Thus when former Home Office Minister and Labour MP Bob Ainsworth called for drugs to be legalised and regulated it should have met with reasonable support from government and his own party. Instead, Labour leader Ed Miliband stated that Bob Ainsworth’s ideas would send out the wrong message to young people and that he was “irresponsible”. The implication here is that the legalisation of drugs would lead to higher levels of usage. However, Ed Miliband’s comments do not correlate with the available evidence from Portugal, who have legalised and regulated drugs since 2001, and consequently have seen a significantly lower percentage of drug usage than other countries. One such statistic from the Cato Institute is the usage of cocaine between the ages of 15-64. It is currently only 0.9% in Portugal, compared to America with an astounding 16.2%. Furthermore, the health risks from drugs have been reduced, with drug addicts now only accounting for 20% of the HIV cases in Portugal, a drop from 56% before decriminalisation.
So, it appears that Miliband’s comments may have more to do with the fact that the government’s yearly expenditure of £16 billion to prohibit drugs has so far failed to tackle the drug problem, and admittance of this fact might force Labour, and other political parties, to backtrack on years of reiterating the importance of zero-tolerance drug policies. Yet can we afford not to make our politicians admit the obviously failed war on drugs? With the UK’s national debt estimated at £4.8 trillion, is spending £16 billion to seize a tiny proportion of drugs and see usage rise justifiable? When, according to the Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit, just legalising cannabis could boost the economy by £3.4 billion to £9.5 billion per annum.
The answer is no. Instead of pursuing the knee-jerk and worn out zero-tolerance on drugs, the UK needs a new initiative to tackle the drug epidemic. Drugs can ruin lives: there is no doubting that. However, pushing on with zero-tolerance on drugs, no matter how good the intention is, does not work and its time we admitted it.

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