Time for a fresh start in drug policy

Richard Branson looking into the distance at dusk, with a city outline behind him
Owen Billcliffe
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 2 March 2020

As a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I have for years argued that the so-called war on drugs has been a costly failure that has achieved nothing to make societies and communities safer. Instead, millions have been needlessly criminalised, while illegal drugs are more readily available than ever before and tens of thousands continue to die year after year. Whether it’s the dramatic toll of North America’s ongoing opioid crisis or the reckless wave of extrajudicial killings in the name of the drug war initiated and encouraged by President Duterte of the Philippines – the suffering continues, the flow of drugs shows no sign of slowing down, and the illicit trade keeps growing, worth more than $300 billion per year globally.


The UK has been going through its own dramatic opioid crisis over the last decade or so. Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs in Britain, which was released last week, shows not only the seriousness of the problem, but also how inadequate policy responses have been so far:

  • Illicit drugs are a huge business, and the UK market alone is worth an estimated £9.4 billion a year – an enormous amount benefitting organised crime. 

  • According to the review, around three million people took drugs in England and Wales last year, with around 300,000 in England taking the most harmful drugs – opiates and/or crack cocaine.

  • In 2018, drug deaths in the UK reached an all-time high with a toll of nearly 3,000. At the same time, the market has become much more violent. Professor Black puts the total costs of drugs to society at over £19 billion -  more than twice the value of the market itself.

These are harrowing figures, yet the underlying challenges are not insurmountable. Sensible, evidence-based policies that take inspiration from what has already been tried and tested elsewhere can show a way out of Britain’s drug crisis. Here are a few ideas:

  • Diversion.

    Far too many of those who use drugs get caught up in a punitive criminal justice system that does little to actually tackle addiction, but further destroys lives by marking people forever as drug offenders – an almost indelible stain that disproportionately affects the poor and people of colour, with dramatic impacts on employment or housing. Instead, policy should help divert those people in need of support towards a public health system that knows how to help and reduce harm. When personal possession and use of all drugs in 2001, it did just that – with dramatic positive results including reductions in injecting drug use and school age drug use, as well as massive savings for a public purse strained by ineffective law enforcement, clogged court dockets and overcrowded prisons.

  • Overdose prevention centres.

    For some years, countries in Europe and elsewhere have been operating where people who use drugs can do so in the presence of trained personnel, using clean equipment, and within reach of anti-overdose medications like naloxone. The truth is that high-risk drug use can be found everywhere, and no measure of law enforcement will stop it. Accepting the reality and offering a safer environment is not only proven to prevent overdose deaths, it also improves public safety. Moreover, these centres create additional entry points into treatment and education for those willing to seek help.

  • Drug safety testing.

    I have previously written about The Loop, a brilliant charity that offers hassle-free and anonymous drug safety testing at music festivals and concert venues across the UK. ‘Multi Agency Safety Testing’ (MAST), as it is formally known, allows members of the public to bring substances they have purchased to The Loop’s pop-up labs for professional analysis to obtain an accurate understanding of the contents. Then they deliver the test results back to users as well as providing harm reduction advice and information. Drug safety testing in UK city centres would not only save countless lives, it would reduce the impacts of drug-related harm on healthcare providers, criminal justice services and the wider community.

There are additional interventions that reduce harm, like heroin-assisted treatment or good Samaritan laws. The Carol Black report was commissioned by the UK Home Office to inform reforms to policy, and we hope that its incisive analysis does just that - and that her follow-up recommendations include those outlined here.

Drug Testing carried out by the charity The Loop at festivals.
Drug Testing carried out by the charity The Loop at festivals.

What is needed now in Britain and elsewhere is a fresh start for drug policy – a fresh start that would save lives, make communities safer and reduce the burden on scarce public resources. That’s what evidence-based policy is all about, and I know it would be met with overwhelming popular support.