Does Priti Patel have a secret plan to decriminalise drugs?
Wade through the small print and her proposed policy actually seems more progressive than perhaps she’d like to admit. Are the Tories quietly ending the war on drugs?
Priti Patel wants to look hard on drugs because all Tories want to look hard on drugs. It helps them hoover up the all-important votes from Middle England, like a cokehead banker shovelling powder into their face in a pub toilet.
So, she’s published some new proposals in a white paper: Swift, Certain, Tough. New Consequences for Drug Possession – which includes the (legally questionable) idea that habitual drug users will have their passports confiscated and be banned from the places they’d been caught using them in – so, essentially, nightclubs. She appeared to leave little doubt that, if you’re a recreational drug user, your life will be shattered and crumble to the ground.
And it worked. “Middle-class drug users face being banned from nightclubs and having passports and driving licences confiscated,” thundered the Daily Mail. But, as some have suggested, all is not quite as it seems.
Because if you read the paper closely, wading through the dense thicket of scaremongering and hacking away at the PR spiel, what you find is perhaps Priti Patel’s real proposal: to decriminalise drugs. At the moment, if you get caught with a Class‑A drug – half a gram of coke, for instance – you’d be arrested, taken to the station, put in a cell, interviewed, and receive a criminal record. That could fuck over your future employment, education or travel plans.
If Patel’s proposals go through, however, if you got caught with coke for the first time you would not be getting a criminal record; you’d be sent (at your own cost) to a drugs awareness course. No criminal record after getting caught with drugs equals decriminalisation – it’s much closer to Portugal’s drugs policy, right? If I was a betting man I’d say that the nonsense about passports will be quietly scrapped in a few months and we’ll be left with the most progressive drug policy we have ever seen in this country. For the first time ever, the government has conceded that drug prohibition was an abject failure and it’s time to try something else.
It looks like a step in the right direction, neatly packaged as a Richard Nixon-esque tough-on-drugs policy. “I broadly agree,” Head of Public Affairs at drug policy think tank Volteface tells THE FACE. “It’s certainly caused some discussion amongst drug policy circles but I think, bottom line, it’s not unreasonable to talk about this being a form of decriminalisation. We’ve had 50 years of escalating sanctions, escalating intensity and escalating prejudice. But these proposals – tentatively and while wrapped in rhetorical nonsense – are a welcome first step in the right direction.”
He added: “I think basically the harsher measures are a smokescreen, they are a diversion or deflection away from the sort of underlying reality of this proposal, which is clearly a rebuke of the criminalisation crackdown.” Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, agrees. “What they’re trying to do is to sort of decriminalise drugs but sound really tough while they’re doing it,” he says. “There’s this paranoia [in politics] that if you do anything to move away from the war on drugs rhetoric you are weak and surrendering. Populist ‘law and order’ politicians like Priti Patel hate that, they like to be seen as muscular and strong.”
Not everyone agrees with this argument, though. Drug policy experts are divided. “No. I don’t take the view that this is a form of decriminalisation,” Niamh Eastwood, executive director of leading drugs charity Release, tells THE FACE. “I think it’s really important that we remember the fundamental core of these announcements is an expansion of policing. Any model that requires an escalated approach towards criminalisation is not decriminalisation.”
“The Home Secretary expects more people to be brought into formal contact with the criminal justice system through these announcements,” she added. While the experts we spoke to didn’t agree whether these proposals constitute a form of decriminalisation, they all said that they could well intensify the social and racial disparity we see when it comes to policing drugs. Are you a middle class uni student caught with MDMA? No criminal record. What if you’re a teenager suffering from social deprivation, found with cannabis? If you can’t afford to pay for your awareness course, you’re going to get a criminal record and face the sharp end of the proposals.
“Whilst there is talk of it targeting middle class people,” Eastwood says. “I think, in reality, when we look at the populations who are subjected to stop and search, we will see an increase in racial disparities. You are already nine times more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re Black and we know that that subset uses drugs at a lower rate compared to the white population.”
For a small minority of people, using drugs (including alcohol) can have disastrous consequences. But the only way to limit or minimise these harms to users and the harms to society as a whole is to treat it as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. It’s a complex, multifactorial health disorder, and ruining someone’s employment opportunities is a reductive approach which exacerbates the problem. And attempts to bully drug addicts by threatening to confiscate their identity documents is illogical, counterproductive and possibly even illegal. And it’s likely that the Tories know this.
Are you struggling with drugs? Click here to see a list of organisations that can help and click here for information about how the NHS can help. If you think there might be a drug-related emergency, do not hesitate to ring 999 – you will never be in trouble for doing this.