Britain’s incoherent drug laws

The British government’s rhetoric about drug use is facile. Heroically misplaced aspirations are paraded with the premise that positive action will be decisive. A so-called Drug Tsar was appointed as long ago as 1998. Why, one wonders, would a British Drug Tsar be more successful than the Romanov’s in 1918? Research done by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons suggests failure is likely.1 Prisons should be able to enforce the laws of the land but are spectacularly unsuccessful in prisons like Birmingham (Summer 2018). My reductionist conclusion is that if drug laws are unenforceable in prisons the chances of enforcing them more broadly is nil. Having failed these laws should be revisited as they merely feed people into the unsafe environment of British prisons.

The evidence in the Prison Inspectorate’s report is pessimistic

Drug misuse is a serious threat to the security of the prison system, the health of individual prisoners and the safety of prisoners and staff. Its effects ripple outwards to harm prisoners’ friends and families and the wider community of which they are a part.” 2

Supplying drugs to prisons is subject to economic laws.

Low risks, high profits and large-scale supply mean that distribution to and within prisons may be linked to organised crime… Drug misuse damages rehabilitation and, if efforts to reduce reoffending are unsuccessful, creates more victims. Profits from drug supply may be used to fund organised criminal activity in the community.3,4

Prison authorities are incentivised to enforce drug laws but it’s an uphill struggle.5 Convicted criminals are much more likely to use drugs than the general population. Use by non-criminals is about 9% whereas those that are arrested, “81% reported having taken an illicit drug at some point in the past and 64% reported having taken drugs in the four weeks before their imprisonment.” 6

Prisoners who habitually use drugs want continued access once imprisoned. They’re highly motivated because prison is a hideous experience with long periods of alienating boredom. Worse: some prisoners begin to use drugs through their experience of prison, 8% of male and 4% of female prisoners who took part in our confidential survey said that they had developed a problem with illegal drugs since they had been in the prison.7 The prison environment is deliberately alienating and is only bearable with illegal drug use. This is despite the excellent strategies the prison service have in place, which have been given a great deal of thought.8


Amazingly policy about British drug enforcement is made within the ambit of operational police decision-making. Class C drugs like cannabis have effectively been decriminalised,10 with small quantities of cannabis treated as a triviality. The entirely false belief that drugs (undefined) are a bad thing is an almost religious belief. The June-July 2018 case of medicinal use of marijuana11 demonstrated both the cowardice and incoherence of Britain’s police minister. There was a demonstrable medicinal use of an (illegal) drug and a politically paralysed Home Secretary. He couldn’t bring himself to exercise judgement. Sajid Javid finally made a decision and felt obliged to reiterate that this didn’t represent a softening of government drug policy. Sajid Javid is also Britain’s police minister whose police forces have unilaterally weakened his hard-core drug policy. Javid isn’t alone in this. Javid is merely the latest example of a weak politician resisting compelling evidence.

Decriminalising cannabis in Britain isn’t going to happen. The consequences of not decriminalising are obvious. They’re spelt out in the first quote (note 1). Recreational drugs available in prisons would alleviate the strain of being in prison for the many prisoners who are habitual drugs users. Prisons are intended to improve prisoners but the evidence in the report is that many become worse. Indeed some become drug addicts when incarcerated. Consequently prisons are more violent, are subject to organised criminals, and prison officers are occasionally corrupted due to the high profits margins from illegal drugs.12 There are no benefits flowing from the current drug laws in prison.



2 ibid p7

3 ibid p8

4 The link to “organised crime” is unsurprising. The so-called Prohibition amendment to the American constitution lasted from 1920 to 1933 when it was abandoned because of the inability of the authorities to enforce the law. Unfortunately organised crime was well established and the criminals simply moved on to other activities.

5 ibid para1:12 p13 considers not only the actuality of drug use but also wholistic strategies for dealing with it via reducing demand.

6 ibid p26

7 ibid p36

8 ibid p43ff Section 4 on prevention of drug infiltration into prisons.

9 see for an over-view of the scale of the ‘problem’. There is about 0.5% of GDP directly focused on this but this ignores the costs of criminalisation where large numbers of people are imprisoned for drug offences. They’re placed in an environment where they’re likely to get worse.

10 see…7845.16863.0.18217.…1.1.64.psy-ab..0.15.1394…0j0i131k1j0i22i30k1j0i22i10i30k1j33i160k1.0.Wme7JDL9h1c


12 The 2017 extension of non-smoking laws to prisons appears to have exacerbated the tensions in prison as many prisoners smoke. Many are both drug users and smokers and they are placed in an environment, which is utterly alienating lifting stress levels. See


This entry was posted in Economics, Health, Prison, Prison reform and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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