I think we can all agree… what a year! As the candle burns down on 2016, it’s appropriate to reflect and try to make sense of what went on. Those of us who follow global drug policy we have seen a disparate year of highs and lows. Where do we start…?

As we finish the year, the most striking point to take note of is that we’re facing an international overdose epidemic. Lives are being lost. The UK’s drug deaths now outnumber road deaths for the first time. The US has a similar oblique boast with their drug deaths now outnumbering gun homicides. North America is increasingly dealing with more deaths and ever increasing strengths of opioid drugs. Canada is no longer talking about heroin, but Fentanyl and Carfentanil are the substances that are creating widespread problems across their cities. It is the unmitigated human tragedy of drug deaths that inevitably drives the quest for serious, life-saving reform. 2016 has been the year where drug consumption rooms (DCRs) have been on the agenda. A number of countries are now looking to adopt safe injecting facilities in city centres, such as Glasgow who are now in process of following up on their proposals to have DCRs

Virgin Unite, war on drugs, Jason Reed, LEAP uk

Virgin Unite, war on drugs, Jason Reed, LEAP uk

Since 2003, Insite Canada has provided a clean, supervised and non-judgemental space for those who inject drugs. In 13 years, Insite has never lost one of its members to overdose. Furthering this dialogue we are now having a wide ranging discussion on heroin assisted treatment (HAT). Much like the Swiss model that has been in operation for nearly 20 years, Canada is now allowing HAT. The UK’s drug advisory council, the ACMD, released a report in December which also recommended more pragmatic approaches, but once more, a rather standardised negative reply came back from the UK Home Office. The issue of harm reduction amongst opioid consumers has provided its own highs and lows in 2016 but it’s quite possible to say that the pursuit of evidence-based, harm-reducing policies has now found its way onto the international map – 2017 will surely see more emplacements which will keep families together and save lives.

Lives were also preserved by a number of other initiatives during the summer of 2016. Festival and club goers were on alert this year due to a number of drug related deaths, most notably in London’s Fabric nightclub. The closure of Fabric sparked a homogenous national debate on nightlife, licensing and drug safety. Making waves during the latter half of the year were The Loop – a forensic drug testing NGO who attend nightlife spots to test the purity and contents of their patron’s drugs. If this sensible (an award winning) outreach model wasn’t good enough, the presence of The Loop’s testing facilities were in coordination with festival organisers, local authorities and police – this level of cooperation set the bar on what can be achieved when we utilise expertise to create a culture of safety over a penumbra fear. Such is The Loop’s success, there’s now talk of whole cities adopting this exceedingly credible harm reduction emplacement.

If there’s one thing that we seem to be getting to grips with on an international level, it’s the dialogue around the criminalisation of drug users. The thirst to criminalise large sections of society seems to be on the wane. Ghana was the latest country to step up and question if their drug laws worked – talk of decriminalisation echoed around the Ghanaian Parliament with a Narcotic Commission Bill passing a second reading. This development fits with the growing trend to incrementally change our drug laws and use regional methods to accomplish reform. Scotland has been another country to debate its own drug laws due to its highest drug deaths ever recorded. Some Scottish MPs, such as Ronnie Cowan, are now taking the issue on and are seeing if Scotland can lead the UK in drug law reform. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, also went on record as supporting her party conference’s call to decriminalise medicinal cannabis consumers. Ireland went a step further and has begun to reform their medicinal cannabis laws. The new film, Grassroots: The Cannabis Revolution, which documents the UK’s medical cannabis campaign over the last few years, hit the big screens in 2016 winning awards and earning Director Dale Beaumont-Brown much adulation as he toured the international film festivals. 

Virgin Unite, drugs, LEAP UK, Russ

Virgin Unite, drugs, LEAP UK, Russell Bloor

Perhaps one of the more subtle and significant dynamics to the UK’s efforts is that of the police. The Scottish Police Federation, a body which represents over 17,000 police officers, published a manifesto in April which questioned if arresting those with drug dependency works – this fits the tone of some notable Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) such as Durham’s Ron Hogg and North Wales’ Arfon Jones who have respectively continued to raise awareness to alternatives to punitive drug laws. Regional discretion in the UK will be a continuing theme going into 2017 and it will provide some welcome opportunities for community-led reform. On a federal scale, it was encouraging to see President Obama commute the sentences of a number of prisoners for drug offences.

The year did provide us with some quite severe low points, such as the UK’s New Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) which was designed to ban so called ‘legal highs’. In reality, the much maligned act simply served to muddy the waters of drug policy even further by posturing to ban quite literally everything… even tea and coffee at one point. One of the positives to come out of the farce was the notable move to keep the general public out of the hands of the Criminal Justice System. Even though the PSA outlawed most new and novel substances, it was widely agreed that the possessor should not face criminal reprisals. This, in essence, is a decriminalised policy. We have to ask: if we can see the sense of not recklessly criminalising people with ‘new’ drugs, then isn’t it time we saw the merits in not prosecuting society with the older and more tested drugs? The US also followed suit with a similar move when the DEA initiated a Kratom ban. This latest chapter in the West’s ‘drug war’ certainly has hints of desperation.

The cultural dynamic to the broad conversation of drug law reform has, arguably, never been hotter, with many believing we’ll see social movements before we’ll see a political one. Important, and dare we say entertaining projects have helped bring the issues to the forefront of the public’s mind. Neil Woods, a former undercover drugs cop, released his memoir Good Cop, Bad War in the summer of 2016. Neil extensively took part in the media rounds and managed to work his way into mainstream consciousness with many believing Neil’s tale to be one of the most important contributions to the debate in a long time. Other contemporary projects have also helped attract new audiences to drugs – podcasts such as Say Why to Drugs, an accessible resource for drug education from Dr Suzi Gage, and Stop and Search which is a conversational podcast designed to explore all elements of the ‘war on drugs’ using a mixed panel of guests from the world of entertainment, science, media and politics, so it’s never been easier to join the conversation around drugs. These podcasts are hosted under the rapper Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces Network, ensuring that the audience is wide and engaged and proving that entertainment can be valuable for raising awareness. 

Virgin Unite, drug policy, war on drugs, LEAPUK, stop and search

Virgin Unite, drug policy, war on drugs, LEAPUK, stop and search

2016 has unfortunately provided us with the most concerning development of the war on drugs for a long time. Mexico has long been the yardstick of what a literal drug war can look like. In the decade since Mexico has waged a war on drugs, it’s estimated over 120,000 people have been killed with nearly 30,000 missing, but this year saw the rise of a new threat to international security. The Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June 2016. Six months on and the President wilfully brags about his ‘war on drugs’ – which is actually a dark and bleak battle against his own citizens. Duterte has not only personally boasted of killing suspects himself, but he gave his authorities and citizens alike the power to execute those who are suspects in the drug trade… and indeed drug consumers. Over 6,000 people are now feared dead without any due process and many more missing or living in mortal fear. It’s due to ever-increasing fanaticism with our drug laws that we must push towards evidence-based reform. It’s not clear how the Donald Trump presidency will react to the perpetual motion of drug policy, but many have concerns. Despite being on record as supporting business and medical marijuana interest respectively, President-Elect Trump has appointed staff who aren’t at all sympathetic to progressive drug laws. The US will be the one to watch in 2017 given it’s at a crucial crossroads with cannabis legalization, but also with their increasing opioid overdose deaths. 

The US provided us with some of the biggest highlights of 2016 with another four US states fully legalizing cannabis; Maine, California, Massachusetts and Nevada now make the tally up to eight in total for fully reformed and legalized US states. A report from UK policy hub VolteFace, titled the Tide Effect, looks at the growing momentum of North America and how this trend will impact on the rest of the world. A Canadian task force has just released a document which gives a much anticipated insight at how they will begin to regulate the trade in their legalized system for cannabis – the first country in the G7 to do so.

The voices which are joining together to champion fresh policies are undeniably impressive. In February 2016 LEAP UK, the newest international branch of LEAP, a global organisation of police, intelligence, military and politicos, launched in the UK Houses of Parliament to help raise awareness to the case for drug reform from their unique perspective. When those who have been charged to enforce drug laws wish to change our approach, we need to pay attention. The incredible organisation Anyone’s Child, a group composed of bereaved family members who campaign for drug reform, marked a first year of campaigning vowing to continue their unique work. We also saw the British Medical Journal, the Royal Society for Public Health with the Faculty of Public Health, and the Global Commission for Drug Policy Reform all launch seminal reports on the imperative need and empirical reasoning for reform. 

Virgin Unite, drug policy, war on drugs, LEAPUK, stop and search

So, how do we round off such an eventful year in drugs? By thinking about the lives which have been lost and impacted by our outmoded drug laws? By celebrating the successes we’ve achieved in the pursuit of health-based policies? 2017 is set to be a crucial year. It’s easy to forget that behind all the statistics, at the back of the room in political discourse, real lives reside – this cannot be overemphasized enough. 2016 sent a crack through the foundations of punitive policies - drug law reform has a great deal of momentum and it’s never been more important to be a participant in this global movement. Our coming year will need all hands on deck to continue the good work that we’ve achieved in 2016.


This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

Comment