The ‘Drug Problem’: Is UK drug policy compatible with liberalism?

Is UK drug policy compatible with the principles of classical liberalism? What reforms would ameliorate the current regime?

15% of all prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences in the United Kingdom (UK) and there was a 44% increase in drug offence rates between May 2019 and 2020, as police ‘proactively pursued’ drug offences over lockdown. Politicians often talk of drug use being a ‘problem’, yet they rarely talk of the way that drug policy is deepening the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our society. Perhaps our drug policy would be different if more of our leaders found themselves living amongst the ‘have nots’.  

In what follows, I will argue that UK drug policy conflicts with the principles of classical liberalism and that this conflict results in the rights of certain individuals being prioritised over those of others. A clarification should be made between ‘classical liberalism’ and ‘Liberalism’: the former relates to a political ideology that developed from the seventeenth century, while the latter is used to describe left-wing politics in America. I will be engaging with the former, which will here on out be referred to as ‘liberalism’.

Although the impact of drug policy varies across races and age this piece will focus on class, because of growing concern over rising rates of income inequality across many liberal countries. A degree of inequality is allowed under liberalism; however, our experience has been that this leads to the creation of an elite community of wealthy and educated individuals, who hold positions of power and influence in society, which allow them to covertly impose their values and beliefs upon everyone else – we might term them the political elite. Drug policy is a consequence of this inequality, which has historically undermined both individual freedom and social solidarity. 

John Locke is widely considered to be the father of liberalism. In 1689, he wrote the Two Treatise of Government, which criticised monarchic rule and argued that all citizens should have the right the ‘life, liberty, and property’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) built on Locke’s ideas but cherished republican values. His work influenced the American and French revolutions: the former resulting in the Constitution of the United States (signed 1787) and the latter in the appointment of Napoleon as First Consul (1799), and the creation of a new French national motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). The Western world has adopted various forms of liberalism since the French Revolution but these remain its core principles. 

Individual liberty is prioritised over the collective interest and government intervention in the private lives of citizens (prohibition for example) should be limited. There must be equality under the law, which exists to prevent citizens from causing harm to others and should not be used to enact conformity with certain ‘moral’ principles. In a society where liberty and equality are felt by citizens, a sense of social solidarity (or fraternity) will develop between them because of this. In A Theory of Justice (1971), the liberal thinker John Rawls warned not to allow excessive rates of inequality in society, because it leads to an erosion of fraternity. In the same year, the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force in the UK, which explicitly prohibits the consumption and distribution of various ‘illicit drugs’ and outlines penalties for those caught breaching these restrictions. 

There has been much controversy over whether this legislation classifies drugs according to their respective harm but government have vehemently defended its credibility. They have been seen to fire advisors that publicly criticise drug policy, such as David Nutt, who argued that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful to users and society than Ketamine, Ecstasy, LSD, and Cannabis. For a direct comparison of the harm they cause society, in theory, we would need to distribute all illicit drugs in the same way that we distribute alcohol and tobacco, because much of the social harm caused by illicit drugs (trafficking) is the result of them being illicit. But there is a growing number of illicit drugs that are being used and trialled in the medicinal setting and increasing evidence that many are less harmful to users than alcohol and tobacco.

Citizens are allowed to inflict a degree of harm upon themselves under liberalism; but in cases where illicit drugs cause users less harm than licit drugs, it cannot be argued that drug laws are only being used to prevent harm, making them illegitimate under the liberty principle. Even if we were to disregard this evidence and maintain that drugs are truly classified according to their harm, however, concerns would still exist over the enforcement of drug policy. In 2018, a report titled ‘The Colour of Injustice’ found that rates of stop and search vary substantially across police forces with similar crime-profiles: in Merseyside 82% of all stop and searches were targeted at drug offences, compared with 43% in Durham; furthermore, police forces are making operational decisions to target low-level drug offences over other crimes, as stop and search has become increasingly targeted at drug offences. This variation in practice across police forces conflicts with the principle of equality under the law, which is only possible when laws are enforced consistently across different regions.

There are measures that would make our drug policy more compatible with liberalism: we could reform the drug classification system to more accurately reflects the harm they cause, for example, and could develop a more standardised approach to enforcing drug policy across police forces (focusing on the use of stop and search). Scotland has the highest drug death rate per capita in Europe, yet Government have blocked proposals from Glasgow City Council to implement ‘fix rooms’ where problem users can take drugs in a safe and clean environment. The law exists to prevent harm in liberal societies, but this requires more than simply prohibiting harmful things and imprisoning those who need support. Laws must develop and adapt to meet the current demands, yet we have seen few changes to Misuse of Drugs Act since its enactment. The political elite never publicly recognise that there is a conflict between this legislation and liberalism and have been unreceptive and unresponsive to the problems described above.

The political elite have long been criticised for being ‘out of touch’ with the concerns of ordinary citizens, because they are predominantly made up of individuals from wealthy and educated backgrounds (upper-middle class) who rarely shared lived experiences with many of the people they represent. Although leading politicians have admitted to using illicit drugs, most live and grew up in areas where crime is low and the police manage drugs well. This, added to the fact that government cherry-pick advisors who support drug policy, creates echo-chambers in government departments that prevent open discussion about reform. Ultimately, the political elite have little incentive to reform drug policy: one, because they are not affected by drug policy in any way comparable to the majority of ordinary citizens; and two, because do not make themselves aware of the harm drug policy is causing in working class communities across the country.

The three pillars of liberalism are interconnected – when one is disrupted the others suffer. Freedom and solidarity cannot truly exist in a society where inequality is wide and far reaching. When a vast majority of wealth is held by a small minority of people, who dominate the political realm, it seems inevitable that laws will be created and applied in the interest of the wealthy and at the expense of poor citizens. We have unsustainable rates of inequality in the UK that have resulted in a political elite who are reluctant to rectify policy unless it suits their interests. Although they claim to provide liberty to all citizens, drug policy is glaring example of how the rights of the political elite, and those who share their values, are prioritised over those of everyone else. Until we have leaders that recognise and respond to this problem, liberalism promise of liberty, equality, & fraternity will never be actualised and drug policy will continue to widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our society. 

Hamza King

Hamza is a researcher and public speaking teacher, who is interested religion, politics, and philosophy.