It's true: drug use is declining in the UK – but that isn’t an argument against decriminalisation


If drug use is going down, then isn’t this proof that our approach to drugs is working? It seems at first glance like a reasonable assumption to make. The Prime Minister certainly thought it was a plausible counter-argument to the widespread calls for decriminalisation witnessed last week. A few political commentators made the same argument, too (even if substantially outnumbered by the pro-reformers). But it’s not a very good argument.

It’s true that overall drug use is declining in the UK. And as you can see from this Home Office chart, the decline is most pronounced among young people; there hasn’t been as much of a reduction in use among the general adult population. 

Over the past year, however, there has been a relatively sharp increase in the use of cocaine and ecstasy. In both cases, prevalence has gone from around 3% to 4% among young people. If I wanted to be more alarmist, in the way that some newspapers like to be, I could’ve said there has been a dramatic 30% increase. But I won’t: on the whole, there is a long-term, downward trend in the prevalence of illicit drug use in the UK.

However, there are several problems with claiming that the welcome downward trend is, in itself, an indicator of the success of current policy. For starters, levels of drug use are not the same as levels of total harm related to drug use – which from reformers' pragmatic perspective is clearly the more important indicator of success. The vast majority of people who use illicit drugs are not harmed by their drug use. (The same obviously also applies to the legal drug alcohol: most people who enjoy a glass of wine after work aren’t alcoholics.) Given this, it’s possible that if harm related to individual use is increasing then reductions in levels of drug use don’t necessarily lead to reductions in the overall harm caused by drugs.

Looking at the critical indicator of drug deaths in the UK is actually a useful case in point. As the chart below shows, the long-term decline in the prevalence of drug use hasn’t been mirrored by a long-term decline in the proportion of people dying due to illicit drug use. To put the figures below into context, according to the EMCDDA, the drug-induced mortality rate among adults in the UK was 38.3 deaths per million in 2012, more than twice the European average of 17.1 deaths per million. So the rosy picture painted by declining rates of drug use suddenly doesn’t seem quite so rosy. It’s also important to acknowledge that a certain amount of illicit drug use has been displaced by the use of legal novel psychoactive substances (aka “legal highs”) and diverted prescription drugs. Trends in the consumption of these substances are poorly monitored, and this omission may flatter the headline statistics.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that prevalence of illicit drug use is in fact the only relevant indicator we should care about, does this help opponents of reform? Well, not really. The “headline” conclusion of the international comparators report released by the Home Office (which mostly just summarised a lot of research that has been known about for a long time) was that a country's rates of drug use don't appear to be influenced by the harshness of its drug laws. Prevalence of drug use is determined by other factors; law enforcement doesn't seem to make much difference. Despite this, the Prime Minister and others cited the decline in drug use as proof that the government’s approach is working and that decriminalisation would be a mistake. But, as the government’s own Home Office report confirmed, there is no evidence, from any country, that the level of drug law enforcement has a discernible effect on the prevalence of drug use. The government is trying to claim credit for something that enforcement didn’t – and couldn’t – do.  

In any case, it is somewhat self-defeating for supporters of the status quo to assert a causal link between the UK’s drug laws and levels of use. This is because the UK's approach to drugs has, at least in terms of the “messages” it supposedly sends, become more tolerant over the past two decades. In 2004, for example, non-criminal sanctions for cannabis possession were introduced, and the drug was also downgraded from Class B to Class C (before being made a class B drug again in 2009). Others have argued that if non-criminal disposals for cannabis are added to the criminal cautions and prosecutions, then the number of cannabis offences recorded by police has actually risen sharply since 2004. But whatever your take on the statistics or public messaging of the reforms, they seemingly had no effect on the downward trajectory of cannabis use in the UK: it was going down before they were implemented, and it continued to go down at about the same rate during and long after.

The causes of the decline in cannabis use have been subject to a lot of speculation. Among other explanations, it has been suggested that it may be due to:

  • the wider decline in tobacco smoking;
  • more potent varieties of cannabis which now dominate the market but are unappealing to many novice users;
  • the growing popularity of other recreational activities – in particular the use of social media and computer games;
  • the rise in people using synthetic cannabinoids or other novel psychoactive substances. 

In reality, there will be many variables at play – a complex mix of social, cultural and economic push and pull factors that, together, have combined to progressively reduce prevalence. The same is almost certainly true for all other illicit drugs, the use of which often rises and falls simultaneously, regardless of legal status and enforcement efforts.    

But if you wanted to be as misleading as certain commentators, you could say: "Well, the UK has adopted a less punitive approach to drugs and use has declined – so this shows that we should remove all penalties for drugs!" But this would be just as spurious as the Home Office’s statements. That the decline in drug use has coincided with the adoption of an ostensibly less punitive approach in the UK isn’t evidence that decriminalisation would mean lower levels of drug use in the UK. It's just evidence that, to repeat, drug laws don't make much of a difference to rates of use. There’s lots more going on – or as the old cliché goes: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

Ultimately, fixating on the prevalence of drug use is unhelpful and unlikely to lead to good policy – particularly when it is linked to unrealistic goals of “drug-free” societies, or motivates populist “zero-tolerance” crackdowns. Minimising harm should be the priority, and as Portugal has shown, this is best achieved by adopting a health-centred approach. Removing criminal penalties for drug users is a pre-requisite for such an approach. After all, providing drug users with the support they might need is far easier when you’re not simultaneously trying to criminalise them.