Mathilda Mallinson: Helena, when did you first come across drugs, if ever?
Helena Wadia: Me… Moi… drugs? Never
Mathilda Mallinson: End of podcast.
Helena Wadia: No, I first encountered weed in the kind of last two years of school, and then anything kind of more than weed, that was at university. So, I guess when I was about 18, but pre any of that, the education, if you can call it that looking back, of what I got about drugs was like, you know, Mean Girls, when the guy is like, ‘if you have sex, you will get chlamydia and die’. Like, I genuinely thought if I was near any drugs, I would die. Yeah, I thought that.
Mathilda Mallinson: Yeah. And what was once really terrifying, is now I think it’s fair to say fairly normal when we look around us. I don’t think anyone I know thinks that if they touch a drug, they will die.
Helena Wadia: Well, no.
Mathilda Mallinson: And that’s because most of them have tried it.
Helena Wadia: Well, yeah. And see, I thought we were supposed to be at war with drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: You’re not wrong. Ever since President Richard Nixon’s historic press conference in 1971, the US has led a global campaign against psychoactive substances.
Helena Wadia: So, I’m quite aware of the war on drugs in America, I feel like we’ve seen a lot of TV or news about the consequences of that war, the militarization of US police, racial inequality in the US prisons. But what about the war on drugs in the UK?
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s interesting, I actually think a lot of people conflate the war on drugs with the US and don’t know much about its impact in their own country. Did you know, for example, that there is actually a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the US?
Helena Wadia: I wouldn’t have guessed that. I don’t know that.
Mathilda Mallinson: Yeah. And when it comes to sentencing when it comes to conviction, there is one crime that accounts for this discrepancy more than any other. Can you guess what that is?
Helena Wadia: It’s not drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: Exactly.
Helena Wadia: Wow.
Mathilda Mallinson: The War on Drugs has been a trademark of pretty much every British government ever since the 70s. And we’ve seen many of the same consequences here, as in the US.
Helena Wadia: One of which I guess, is more drugs than ever before.
Mathilda Mallinson: Well, yeah, actually, yes, metrics of drug use, and drug fatalities have gone up.
Helena Wadia: So, have we lost the war on drugs? And if so, what comes next?
Mathilda Mallinson: Let’s go find out. I’ll look into the dealing side of the story. And you look into the using
Helena Wadia: And we’ll meet back in the studio with some very special guests to discuss everything around this media storm.
America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse. The gangs, the drugs. The link between drug abuse and crime. Just say no. Drugs are menacing our society. They’re killing our children. It is necessary to wage a new all-out offense. Say hello to my little friend.
Helena Wadia: Welcome to Media Storm, the news podcast that starts with the people who are normally asked last.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m Mathilda Mallinson
Helena Wadia: And I’m Helena Wadia.
Mathilda Mallinson: This week’s investigation. The UK’s War on Drugs, politics and prohibition. Black Jag, okay. I am in Camden, London, and I’m about to go do a pickup, which is what you call buying drugs from a street dealer. I got this guy’s number from one of his regular clients, which is how these things tend to work. Hey. Just here, is it 40? After a lot of back and forth, I managed to persuade a dealer to speak to us but to protect his anonymity. The interview is voiced by an actor. My first question is how did you get into dealing?
Dealer: It wasn’t like a conscious decision just sort of happens. You grow up surrounded by the goals you’d have since you small, it’s the people you look up to. It’s literally where you get your pocket money from when you’re young. How young are we talking here? 12 to 13.
Mathilda Mallinson: Oh my god, 13!
Dealer: Yeah. Welcome to my world.
Mathilda Mallinson: And what is it that you sell?
Dealer: Coke, mandy, ket, weed.
Mathilda Mallinson: So, for wider listener benefit, cocaine, MDMA, which is ecstasy, ketamine and cannabis.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you ever feel guilty about the work that you do?
Dealer: I reckon it’s like lots of people in lots of jobs. Mostly no! At the end of the day, we are to put our bread on the table or whatever. Sometimes you have moments, like I worry about if the stuff could be impure, and someone might get hurt. Maybe sometimes I feel bad when selling it to someone that’s clearly very sick. Really addicted. But the reality is most of my customers are happy, grateful, they’re having fun. Even if you meet addicts, you can sort of see that there are under 1000 reasons why they’re obsessed with drugs, like that their life is hard, they have mental problems, they’ve got no choice in life. I am responsible for that shitty world.
Mathilda Mallinson: Okay, so you see it basically like a regular job, not a criminal job.
Dealer: Well, kind of. I mean, if I was a banker, would you ask me if I felt guilty about my work, if I was a police officer, would you ask me if I felt guilty.
Mathilda Mallinson: Surely though, you must worry about getting arrested. That is something that comes with the job.
Dealer: Yeah. Of course, but, well, firstly, prison’s something that’s, I don’t want to say normal, but, yeah. More normal to people like me. There’s this saying in our neighbourhood, ‘prison or dead’. It’s like the lesser of two evils, in many cases. That in itself is kind of stupid or unfair, feels unfair, because people want drugs, people who will never go to jail. The fact of this world is if the demand is there, someone’s gonna meet that demand. Someone’s gonna do that work, it’s illegal work. It’s high-risk work. So, who are the people that are going to take those risks? Those of us who see the risk as worth it, because it’s the best dice we’ve got to roll in life.
Mathilda Mallinson: And is the risk worth it?
Dealer: What like financially? I mean, yeah. The money’s good. It’s a lot better than to slave away in the shitty jobs available. Like, that’s not even a comparison. I won’t have to do it forever because of that. One day I’ll have saved enough and I’ll leave. It’s a risk, but, it’s not a forever risk.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you ever worry about, worse than being arrested, about the risk of violence or even death?
Dealer: I told you already, prison or dead.
Mathilda Mallinson: I heard that in the prison investigation I did. I heard the same saying.
Dealer: Yeah, I bet you have. I’ve lost friends. I’ve been stabbed. But that’s not just the drugs. That’s like the world. The drugs are a symptom of the same thing as the violence. In our societies certain people are in charge, scary fucking people and the police. The police don’t protect us. They treat us as the problem. When the police don’t protect you, you protect yourself. How? You join in, you play the game.
Mathilda Mallinson: Okay. What can you tell me about your clients, like age, class, race?
Dealer: I sell a range of drugs, so I get a bit of a mix. Mostly students for weed or otherwise, I’d say the majority are posh, older, white guys, for the class As. Bankers, whatever. Ah mate, I’ll get all over town in a night’s work, it’s a pandemic. You know, if I can, own it.
Mathilda Mallinson: Final question, if you could pick one thing, what do you want the public to understand about being a dealer?
Dealer: I’m just a normal guy. Okay, I like football. Love my mum. I’m like you just with different choices.
Mathilda Mallinson: Okay, thank you. Let’s wrap up there.
Dealer: You know what, don’t use that scary voice thing for me. Just because that makes me seem like fucking Darth Vader, like some fucking evil alien thing. Okay, just use like a normal guy speaking. That’s what the general public don’t get to see when they think about dealers.
Mathilda Mallinson: Bye. That was easy. Easy, but illegal. Class A, B and C drugs are not uncommon in the UK. But supplying or producing them could land someone life in prison. Some can cause extreme addiction and all pose health risks or threaten public safety by lowering users’ inhibitions. These dangers dictate our legal response. In December, the government announced a ten-year strategy to combat illegal drug use in full stately regalia.
Boris Johnson: Too many people have their lives blighted by these county lines gangs.
Mathilda Mallinson: The Prime Minister dressed as a police officer to unleash an all-out war on drugs.
Boris Johnson: It’s a long time really since you’ve heard a government say class A drugs are bad.
Mathilda Mallinson: It is the sixth new government drug strategy announced in the past 25 years. None of them have eradicated drug use. In fact, deaths from drugs in England and Wales are the highest they’ve been since records began. Scotland boasts the highest drug death rate recorded by any European country by far. Crackdowns and criminalization in a society where drug use is common. Does it work? Is it fair?
Helena Wadia: A rave in London, a typical place to dance, drink and yes, take drugs. So how common is taking drugs recreationally? We started with our friendship circles and asked them to ask their friendship circles: ‘how normal are drugs?’ Some of these clips are voiced by actors.
Anonymous speakers: Weed and coke and, to some degree, ket, I can secure almost whenever I want. It’s so easy.
My year group, were taking them from when I was 12.
I love drugs and I often want them on a night out, but I’m not addicted and I could cut them out at any time.
I rely on weed as my most important painkiller, living with chronic pain. I just wish I could relieve my pain without feeling like a criminal.
I’d like to describe my drug use as recreational, but it is daily, especially for marijuana.
I probably have pot brownies every two or three weeks and other drugs every three months.
Drugs are very common just within the social circles I’m in at university. And it’s not until I go home and I see my friends from school and I realize that actually it’s not that normal in all situations.
My friends and I take drugs when we’re partying at clubs, bars, each other’s houses. I used to think we were unusual but now I realize it’s probably more uncommon to not in our age group, at least.
I definitely describe my use as recreational even though I take drugs on most nights out. In a lot of ways, I think they’re healthier than alcohol. A night out with small bumps of drugs every so often lots of water, no booze, lots of dancing and I feel fresh as fuck the following morning.
I first tried class A drugs at a festival after leaving school. There were some boys camping with us, friends of friends, who shared their ecstasy with me. They knew it was my first time so tested everything themselves, gave me small doses and looked after me the whole time. It was nice.
This use around them that’s almost constant, like, whenever I’m out with friends we smoke weed, sometimes we buy some coke or something and it’s quite normal. And it’s so easy for you to get drugs when you want.
Getting drugs is as easy as anything, dealers numbers get passed around. Most of us have a few dealers we can call on any given night, depending where we are, and which dealers work in that area.:
I’ve tried cocaine once or twice and was not for me.
I probably use coke twice a month. Recently, I had a little shrooms and ket day with one of my friends.
You just phone up a number, you know, you pick up from them or they drop off to you it’s so easy.
Helena Wadia: Demand for many of the most illegal drugs, like cocaine, is largely driven by white wealthy buyers. But when you look at the demographic breakdown of those imprisoned for meeting that demand, the discrepancy is uncomfortable. Our dealer talked about socio-economic opportunity playing a role in this divide. There is also proof of active racism. In our earlier episode on criminal justice? We met two black women, Lisa and Shelly convicted to years in prison on drug offenses. Both of them felt that their race combined with the fact that the crime was drug related, led to unfair and discriminatory sentencing.
Lisa Brooks: I got done obviously for conspiracy to supply class A drugs. All I was, was a courier, right. So, I transferred from A to B, just for some quick money, basically because I was struggling. And when we all got arrested, it turned out that there was 11 of us in the ring. Now I didn’t know all these people. All I knew was one person. I’ve never been in trouble. I’ve always had a good job. But I ended up getting charged with conspiracy to supply class A drugs. They also classed me as an organized crime gang member. I’ve never been in a gang. You tell me how I get the third highest sentence out of the whole lot. Yeah, I feel like I was discriminated because I was a woman. But more so I feel I was discriminated against because, because I’m black. I was told by my solicitor don’t have your black friends in the public gallery. I made a few friends in the Asian community when I was in Stoke as well. I was told not to have them there because of how it will look to the jury.
Mathilda Mallinson: Shelly was given a five-year sentence for conspiracy to import class A drugs. She’d been involved in the drug trade before and was offered a courier job that would involve picking up a consignment from the airport. But by this point, she was a mother and wanted to stay out of prison. So, she connected the employer with a woman she’d met in prison who had done this work before a white woman. The story as it was told in the courtroom was dictated, she feels in large part by race.
Shelley Ballard: The way they had portrayed it was kind of like we took this vulnerable woman, she was a white lady, and forced her to do things, you know, against her will. It was pointed out that we were both black and it was believable because we were both black and from Birmingham and she was a white lady from Stoke. And she ended up getting less than the guidelines. I think the minimum was four years, she ended up getting two and a half years. I ended up getting five and he ended up getting seven, you know, so I think racism played a huge part in that.
Mathilda Mallinson: Lisa and Shelly’s accounts may be subjective, anecdotal, but the data supports them betraying an unavoidable bias behind the sentencing of black women in drug trials. 227 BAME women sent to prison for drug offenses for every 100 white women. That was the finding of a seminal investigation in 2017, The David Lammy Review. It exposed clear structural racism in our criminal justice system. And it’s not just black women being unfairly sentenced.
Anonymous speakers: All white stop and search, I’ve never seen this in my life.
Mathilda Mallinson: Black boys are over ten times more likely than white boys to be arrested for drug offenses. So where does this race divide come from? And have we seen improvements since the findings came out? Who better to ask than the man behind that report? David Lammy himself.
David Lammy: Drug offences in Britain are usually seen through the lens of gang culture, and through the lens of county lines and therefore, is strongly associated with violence and turf wars. I did take evidence from young people who talked about the fact that they lived on a housing estate, that neighbourhood policing has largely disappeared. And so, in a sense, the gangster that was on the housing estate ran the housing estate, you want to stay alive, you want to stay out of trouble very, very quickly, you could get swept up with sort of gang affiliation. And we’ve got to be careful that we describe them as a gang, just because they happen to be based in Brixton or Peckham. Our current Prime Minister was in a gang, it was called the Bullingdon Club, and actually they did some pretty terrorizing things, by all accounts.
Mathilda Mallinson: Is there a case to be made that some of these drug dealers are victims of modern slavery?
David Lammy: Yes, when you see a young person traumatized seeing the violence, fearing recrimination, this is trauma, that that’s being inflicted on that young person. This is trafficking and it’s child trafficking. And this story of pimping is as old as time. Oliver Twist is about the pimping of young people. Yes, the complexion of those young people in a city, like London, is now often a multicultural face, but we spend way too much focus on the young people, and not enough focus on the Mr. Biggs, the men in suits who organized the transhipment of the serious amounts of cocaine, who most often are not ethnic minorities by the way, because nobody thinks that a young person in Moss Side, Salford or Tottenham knows how to organize tons of cocaine out of Colombia, across the Atlantic, through Spain, Amsterdam and into London. They haven’t got that means; they haven’t got that network.
Mathilda Mallinson: Since you’ve published these findings. Are you satisfied with the work being done to improve the issues?
David Lammy: No, I’m not. In terms of by review that army review, which by the way, was commissioned by a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, and was presented to a Conservative Prime Minister in the shape of Theresa May. All those Conservative Prime Ministers took the Lammy review seriously and were beginning to implement its recommendations. I’m afraid ever since Boris Johnson came in, because of his attitude to issues particularly of race, I’m very, very concerned, I’m afraid we’re having this conversation at a time when these issues have dropped down the political priority list. Core society’s got to ask bigger questions. What could we have done? How did this happen?
Mathilda Mallinson: What’s your immediate reaction to the so-called war on drugs?
David Lammy: I think the war on drugs, most commentators would say, has failed. And so that then leads to big questions about why it’s failed, and what should replace it.
Mathilda Mallinson: And is there space within that for more conversations about drug policy reform, by which I mean, decriminalization?
David Lammy: The government made some commitments on the medicinal use of cannabis, are someone who is suffering from multiple cirrhosis, or has pain who’s trying to get access to medicinal cannabis and you can see that the actual action to implement it and make it real for people has not happened under this government. It’s a populist government, and you have to be bold in this area of policy. And so, it does seem that we’re in a bit of a stasis.
Mathilda Mallinson: The Home Office expressed an intention to respond, but unfortunately, did not get us their responses in time. We’ll publish them on our social media should they come through. Both the failure of historic policies to eradicate or even reduce drug use, and the plain fact that racial minorities are disproportionately affected by its criminalization have led some to argue for radically different approaches.
Kojo Koram: It’s this continuing commitment to a failed policy that has been militarized since Richard Nixon in 1971, declared before more war on drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: One of them is Dr Kojo Korum, a law professor at Birkbeck college expert in empire, race and the war on drugs.
Kojo Koram: Since then, we see it every few years, whether it’s Richard Nixon, whether it’s Ronald Reagan, whether it’s Margaret Thatcher, whether it’s John Major, whether it’s George Bush, whether it’s Bill Clinton, it goes across political divides, we see these politicians come up on stage and declare ‘we are starting a new war on drugs.’ Five years later, the United Nations prints out the statistics of drug use, and associated harms, and they’ve all gone up, every single time. Must be the definition of madness to continue doing the same thing, and expecting different results.
Mathilda Mallinson: What underpins this policy at its core, is the goal of eradicating demand for drugs. Do you think that that in itself is a realistic goal?
Kojo Koram: I don’t think that it’s realistic and I don’t think that it’s even desired. I don’t think that there is an inherent moral failing in the use of particular psychoactive substances. Our assumptions about the dangers of particular substances are socially and historically constructed. Their transition into becoming the kind of dangerous sinful moral failings of drugs in the early 20th century happens specifically because of their association with specific subordinate racial groups in the United States of America, primarily. The fact that we’ve called cannabis leaf marijuana was a campaign that was popularized in order to kind of emphasize the drugs associations with the Mexican American population that was emergence at that time.
Mathilda Mallinson: And do you think that this double standard continues today?
Kojo Koram: At the last leadership election, I think it was 100% of the final applicants all confessed to their own history of drug use. From Jeremy Hunt talking about his smoking of cannabis to Rory Hunt talking about you know, smoking an opium pipe, I don’t know where you can get an opium pipe and I have worked in drug policy for a decade. Andrea Leadsom talking about her use of cannabis, which I don’t think anyone believed but maybe she was just trying to fit in. There is a long history of mainstream politicians who as soon as they get into office talk about ‘well, I experimented with drugs you know, when I was in boarding school’, or ‘I experimented with drugs when I was on my gap year, and you know, now I realize how terrible it is and that’s why I’m going to clamp down on 16-year-olds from Tottenham or Handsworth or Toxteth’. Particular people are seen as allowed to experiment, allowed to be hedonistic if they want to, but they’re not seen as dangerous or morally failing. Whilst other people, when they’re involved to these substances are seen as inherently dangerous, inherently morally dammed and can only be dealt with the full force of the law.
Mathilda Mallinson: I want to talk about alternatives. When you explained why the government strategy, in your view, is not evidence based. You described failed historical policies that it repeats. But are there successful alternative approaches that you feel they’re ignoring?
Kojo Koram: Major jurisdictions in the world are looking at alternative drug policies and have implemented alternative drug policies. The example that they have put in place in Portugal in 2000, where they had skyrocketing issues around deaths from dangerous drugs, infectious diseases, they implemented decriminalization, and those numbers have gone down drastically.
Mathilda Mallinson: Just to clarify the difference between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalizing drugs means they will no longer be dealt with as a criminal issue, but as a civil issue, much like parking fines. Legalizing drugs would allow them to be sold at licensed dispensaries, taxed and regulated.
Kojo Koram: The place that has the record drug deaths in Europe is the UK, specifically Scotland. More than anywhere else in Europe, the UK should be leading on drug policy reform, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s Germany that have also legalized cannabis just recently within EU government. It’s Malta that have legalized cannabis. It’s Italy that’s having its referendum later this year. And the United Kingdom is playing last century’s game, for reasons, in my opinion of kind of party-political self-interest.
Mathilda Mallinson: Perhaps it’s time to have a more honest conversation about the role of drugs in our society, because they are around us, but not everyone is paying the price. So why are we nervous to release this episode? Why is this conversation still so taboo? That brings us onto part two of our podcast. Thanks for sticking around.
Helena Wadia: Welcome back to the studio and to Media Storm, a podcast that puts people with lived experience at the centre of reporting.
Mathilda Mallinson: Today we are talking about drugs, the war on drugs and whether the mainstream media could do a better job at covering stories about drugs. With us are some very special guests.
Helena Wadia: Our first guest is the Executive Director of the charity Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law. Having worked in drug policy for the last 15 years, she is passionate about drug policy reform. Welcome Niamh Eastwood. Hi Niamh.
Niamh Eastwood: Hello, thanks very much for having me.
Mathilda Mallinson: Our second guest works at the International Drug Policy Consortium and leads the development of the support, Don’t Punish Campaign, a grassroots centred initiative in support of harm reduction and drug policies that prioritize public health and human rights. It’s Juan Fernandez. Hi, Juan.
Juan Fernandez: Hi, both. Thank you for having me.
Helena Wadia: Thank you both so much for joining us. So, we’ve heard in the first half of the episode about the war on drugs, what would you say is the purpose of the war on drugs? Or what was the war on drugs meant to do?
Niamh Eastwood: I think this is probably a complex analysis. But actually, when you get down to the core of it, the war on drugs is largely around social and racial control. Right? I think we have to remember that drug prohibition is a relatively recent phenomenon. We did not always prohibit drugs. And in fact, in London in the 1900s and the late 1800s, women would have tea parties with opium. So, this is a really recent policy.
Mathilda Mallinson: Wow, let’s bring that back.
Niamh Eastwood: Opium tea was very popular. And so, a lot of it plays into kind of international relations and trade agreements, and there is a complexity to it. But when we kind of move forward into the mid-20th century and late 20th century, you could really see a move to using the drug laws as a form of social and racial control. That, for me, is really kind of the genesis of the modern drug laws that we have. It’s really not about the drugs. And we would often say that in our work, you know, we were up against 100-year propaganda war. You know, it’s 100 years of people telling you, these substances are dangerous, they are bad, that they have no therapeutic, or medicinal utility, ignoring the cultural and indigenous experience of folks who use these drugs across the world.
Juan Fernandez: It is important, I think, also to look at the genesis of the War on Drugs globally, it is not only the US elites that are invested in this project. So, if we look at, for example, how coca leaf was perceived in Bolivia at the beginning of the 20th century and by the white elites, or mixed-race elites. They understood the coca leaf as inverted commas, “degrading the cognition of the native populations”. We see very similar experiences here in the UK, when the police were already using anti cannabis laws to raid, for example, The Mangrove restaurant, which is where civil rights activists and anti-racist activists in the UK met. So, there is no point in the history of the war on drugs where it hasn’t served white supremacy and racism.
Helena Wadia: In what way is, like, in practical terms in real life, terms of what’s going on, in what ways does the war on drugs affect racial minorities?
Niamh Eastwood: We would sometimes have kids come over from the local estates, who would turn up with handfuls of stop search forms where they have been stopped and searched maybe one, two, three, four times a week. And the basis for those searches are cannabis and drugs. Can you imagine what that’s like, as a young person?
Mathilda Mallinson: Humiliating.
Niamh Eastwood: Oh, totally humiliating, totally. Like, it’s you lose your freedom for a moment. Your community sees you being stopped by police. So, you’re perceived as being someone who causes trouble. And when we talk about stop and search in the UK, you know, we talk about it in the context of knife crime, and actually only like ten to 15% of searches regularly are for weapons. Over 60% of stop and searches are for drugs.
Juan Fernandez: Something that I think it’s worth mentioning also is, once somebody, so the likelihood that somebody will be prosecuted for that cannabis, for example, for cannabis possession is 12 times more than for whites, when it comes to black people. So, the disproportion is throughout the criminal legal system.
Niamh Eastwood: We actually had a call on the helpline from a woman who was in a park in East London. She was getting her hour’s, you know, exercise and she got up, young black woman in her 30s, she got up and she was talking in her shirt into her jeans, you know, the way you do. And police saw her went over and said to her, we think you’re trying to conceal drugs, we’re going to carry out a stop search. Carried out a stop search, found no drugs and then they decided that they weren’t satisfied with that. And they felt that there were grounds to carry out a strip search. And they took her to the police station where she was fully stripped searched by police. And just think of the context of that, a park, nobody around her small amounts of drugs, if there was any, and there wasn’t. Can you imagine the trauma that she went through? You mean, so she rings our helpline, and is totally traumatized. This was someone who had been previously sexually abused. You know, she had just come at counselling for it. And that was her experience of the police.
Mathilda Mallinson: And I wonder how many of our white listeners would expect that to happen to them on a morning jog?
Helena Wadia: I guess the big question then, you know, even just as we’ve been talking, we’ve heard loads of statistics from both of you loads of evidence, right. I guess the question is, then, are our politicians ignoring the evidence? And if so, you know, why? I think an interesting example of this was last month, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, he created a plan that meant that young people caught with some class B drugs in a small minority of London boroughs would avoid prosecution. It was reported that this plan included cannabis, ketamine and speed. There was a lot of reporting that stated the mayor was moving to decriminalize drugs in the capital. And then, the mayor almost had to like backtrack a little bit. If a significant majority of the evidence points towards the fact that the war on drugs does not work, why are politicians so afraid of putting policies in place to decriminalize drugs?
Juan Fernandez: I think there’s two things that come to mind. The first is we need to interrogate the idea that the war on drugs doesn’t work, because it works very well when it comes to serving as a mechanism by which racialized and minoritized communities are prosecuted and involved in the criminal legal system. So, in that sense, it is working. Now the stated goal of prohibition, according to the international conventions of the health and welfare of humankind. And in that sense, yes, the war on drugs is a catastrophe. Also, let’s be clear, most people who use drugs do not need to go through a treatment or education program. They mostly need to have access in case they ever need to have recourse to those services. But we need to completely end this idea and commit to a response to drugs that is about promoting health, promoting rights, rather than punishment and neglect.
Mathilda Mallinson: I can think of a third possible cause for the war on drugs. You mentioned social control. You mentioned actually improving public health. What about scoring well with voters? Do you think that’s a factor? I mean, last week, Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reid suggested a naming and shaming scheme against people who buy recreational drugs. Does the War on Drugs score with voters?
Niamh Eastwood: Well, I personally think that politicians are well behind the curve on this one. I think actually, what we’re seeing is a much more informed public, largely because the work of organizations like ours, and I think we should own that.
Juan Fernandez: It reminds me of a quote by a federal judge in Chile, who said, ‘criminalization is the best way for politicians to say that they’re doing something without doing anything’. And that is basically what these declarations do, pander to this idea that justice should be associated with punishment. When in reality, punishment doesn’t deliver justice.
Niamh Eastwood: I think Juan brings up a really great point about how the drug policy and drug prohibition and the drugs trade can be utilized by politicians as a way of excusing policies, social policies that they’ve created, the last ten years, we have gone through the most punishing austerity, that has seen youth centres close, that has seen educational maintenance grounds taken away, that has seen exclusions at school, which are also driven around kind of racialized narratives of unruly black kids that can’t be looked after and so they need to be pushed out of school. Those are the problems and those problems are created by government. But government has this very useful excuse of going, ‘Oh, it wasn’t us look over there, look over there. It’s the drugs trade, not our fault, not our policies.’
Mathilda Mallinson: So that connection, that trend that you’ve just pointed out, if we look at statistics, and how statistics are used, the government and the press will often point to connections between drug use and crime rates, drugs and homelessness, drugs and health crises. And these are used to justify increasingly harsh criminal policies against drugs. But if we contextualize those statistics, we see that since we’ve proactively criminalized drugs, all those statistics have actually gotten worse. So, in context that data seems to argue against the policies they’re being used to support. So, does the media need to do a better job at contextualizing these statistics?
Niamh Eastwood: Totally. I think that there’s a really great piece of research that actually comes from the Home Office that was published in 2017, which is an evaluation of the previous drug strategy, that evaluation, said that we spend 1.6 billion every year on law enforcement to tackle the drugs trade. They conclude, the Home Office concludes that it has little to no impact on the availability of drugs.
Helena Wadia: Wow.
Juan Fernandez: I think like it’s what you were alluding to about the responsibility of journalists is incredibly important. I remember, for example, a couple of years ago, there was a moment in the media where we started observing that people were coming into harm because of their use of GHB, for example. This was a drug that was particularly used among queer and trans communities. And it felt like the only response from journalists was to report on this through unadulterated accounts from government and police. And so, you would hear that this was a destructive, awful, almost demonic drug, when in reality, there’s swathes of people using it. It is an incredibly risky substance to use. But the response then was increasing the scheduling of GHB, which only makes the market even more precarious and unstable. So, I think there’s definitely a role for journalists to look at what comes from government with a level of healthy scepticism. Yes, yes completely.
Mathilda Mallinson: Journalism?
Helena Wadia: Talking to the people actually involved?
Niamh Eastwood: But I have to say also, the media has probably improved in the last 15 years. You know in this space, I think we are seeing better reporting and more balanced reporting, and that there is more openness to talking about alternative approaches and allowing our voices in that space. So, we do get quoted in all the main press stories.
Mathilda Mallinson: Yeah, The Guardian, The Economist, have taken an editorial stance in favour of drugs.
Niamh Eastwood: Yeah, and that’s something that you wouldn’t have seen in the early noughties.
Helena Wadia: Well, I think this is a perfect time to take a look into how the media reports on drugs and people who use drugs. It is really heartening to hear how it has improved, there is still a distinct lack of lived experienced voices, and there are still some common terms used, especially in tabloid papers, such as crackhead or junkie is used a lot. What messages do those words send?
Juan Fernandez: I think they’re literally meant to otherize and to create the impression that there’s an us and there’s them and the them tend to be untrustworthy, marginal, dangerous, and usually that demonization aligns itself along class and race and gender divides. So, I think this language, this stigmatizing language is there to substantiate this war on drugs and to make people believe that there’s a subset of the population that’s undeserving of care, and attention. I think what this country needs when it comes to, and all countries, when it comes to drug policy is a revolution of care, we need to start understanding that we are responsible for each other. And to believe that there are certain subsets of the population that do not deserve care, that are sort of ungrievable, if they die, is incredibly concerning, if that is the line of travel that we’re adopting as a society. And definitely journalism has a responsibility to contribute to that positive change.
Helena Wadia: Well, just as important as words, are pictures, and often in articles, we’ll see a depiction of people who take drugs kind of like these, like hooded youths down a dark alleyway. Or if there are pictures of the drugs themselves, say a story on drug dealing, they’ll use a picture of like loads of pills and loads of cocaine and loads of heroin, like all-in-one picture, which is kind of like an unlikely amount of drugs for a drug dealer to have.
Niamh Eastwood: It’s a manipulation. And, you know, I think these things are done as drug scares. And does that work? Let’s look at prevalence around drug use. No.
Juan Fernandez: I read a really compelling article that suggests that it might be doing the opposite because, if you look, if all the images that appear on journals and newspapers are of like ridiculous amounts of drugs, you might be convinced to think using drugs is about using loads.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m barely using any.
Juan Fernandez: Yeah. Whereas, what we want is for people to be more responsible, more caring, more careful about their drug use, and to have access to the means to ensure that. So, I think these representations are all kinds of negative, are ineffective when it comes to reducing prevalence and they do not communicate anything about how to reduce harms around drug use.
Mathilda Mallinson: Time now to look at some of the recent articles that have been making headlines. We’re gonna start with this from The Mirror. I’ll read the headline out: Troubled Rylan Clark caught on film demanding ‘gimme the gear’ prompting drug fears. I feel like we see this in some form or other all the time, headlines about various celebrities snorting suspicious white powder, or framed as troubled for taking drugs. This moral outrage we see expressed by mostly tabloids is it in the public interest. I mean from a technical journalistic measure, it’s criminal, which makes it in the public interest. But is it actually in the public interest?
Niamh Eastwood: Well, first of all, it’s not criminal. He didn’t actually have drugs on his possession, saying give me drugs is not a criminal offense. So, you know, it’s a non-story to start with,
Mathilda Mallinson: True.
Niamh Eastwood: Secondly, it was on the front page of The Mirror, which was really disappointing considering the reporting has been so good in other areas recently. Not namely parties in other parts of the country. But so, you know, I saw this on the Sunday morning on Twitter, the feed goes, you check who’s trending, you know, and you read the story. And you’re like, this is not great journalism. It’s not really front-page news. It’s not news. But then you started to see the comments on social media. I was actually really heartbroken by it.
Helena Wadia: It was really uplifting, wasn’t it?
Niamh Eastwood: It was really great.
Helena Wadia: For the first time ever, banded together for Rylan.
Niamh Eastwood: To defend Rylan.
Helena Wadia: The nation’s sweetheart!
Niamh Eastwood: Totally! But they were also ‘it’s a non-story.’ This is a non-story from the point of view of what might not be a criminal offense. And even if he took drugs, lots of people take drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: And it shows that disjuncture you pointed out.
Niamh Eastwood: Absolutely.
Mathilda Mallinson: Maybe the people are way ahead of the policymakers on this.
Niamh Eastwood: Absolutely. I think that was really telling for me. The other element, the second one, was in the story, he’s like, ‘I would never use drugs, I only drink alcohol. Alcohol is my thing.’ And it’s like, alcohol is a drug too. And if we know anything, alcohol is probably the most harmful drug out there. And that’s, you know, to be fair to Rylan, the nation’s sweetheart, you know, that’s also often what you see is people deflecting and saying, I’m not using illicit substances, I’m using legal substances.
Helena Wadia: Because they have to.
Niamh Eastwood: Yeah, you know, alcohol will damage your organs. If you drink too much of it. That happens. That’s a fact. Heroin doesn’t. Did you know heroin actually doesn’t cause any harm to any internal organ? It’s the route of administration that is associated with harm. So, it’s injecting. I’m not saying it doesn’t cause harm, but I’m saying the difference that we have in the conversation around these two substances is fascinating.
Helena Wadia: Wow, that is fascinating.
Mathilda Mallinson: That we just accept.
Niamh Eastwood: That it’s destroying your body.
Mathilda Mallinson: Alcohol, good. Heroin, bad.
Niamh Eastwood: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s just not a story. It’s not a story.
Helena Wadia: Let’s move on to this from The Sun, then. Drug tragedy, girl 16, died after taking MDMA with pals who didn’t call ambulance for TWO HOURS. I say it like that, because two hours and capital letters, as they didn’t want to get in trouble. This is the story of Lauren Hawkins, who it was revealed, died in 2020, from what was reported as a lethal dose of MDMA. I felt like there’s many things wrong with this article. But overwhelmingly, I felt it was that this article essentially blames Lauren’s teenage friends for being too scared to call an ambulance, and for exposing her to drugs in the first place. What were your thoughts on this?
Juan Fernandez: The article could have mentioned, for example, that an unstable supply is associated with harm, the article could have talked about how criminalization deters people from accessing services, and potentially is a huge contributing factor to this person actually dying, which is absolutely terrible. I picked up on an expression that is in the article about using drugs being like a Russian Roulette, which I think deserves its own sort of consideration. Because I, I understand that, especially because of what I just said, you don’t know exactly what you’re taking, because of the policies and the lack of access to programs, you don’t know what you’re taking, and thus, there’s a level of uncertainty there. But there’s a neuroscientist in the US, Dr Carl Hart, who says, this idea of drugs as a Russian Roulette is completely absurd. These are molecules of very predictable impact on your body, like they’re not magical substances that will change. Of course, they’re mediated by who you are, how your biology reacts to certain substances. But there is a predictability to ingesting a molecule of known content and potency. And what’s happening is people are denied information about what they’re putting in their bodies, and then blamed for not having that information, which I find absolutely, again, going to the hypocrisy and cruelty of these policies and politics.
Niamh Eastwood: I mean, what was it that those two children and these children, you know, let’s put it into context, who were terrified of calling the police or calling an ambulance because they thought the police would come as well. That actually happens doesn’t happen in every case, but it does happen. We’ve had cases through our helpline where we’ve had people who have witnessed an overdose, call the ambulance police have come and they’ve been arrested with possession for possession with intent to supply, so a supply charge. So that carries very grave legal consequences. And that is not a public health approach to drugs. That is the opposite of a public health approach. The lack of a cohesive legal policy in this space is contributing to deaths, we could easily tomorrow, have police forces across the country come together and say we have guidance that says in no case are the police to arrest someone who has reported an overdose, that would be an easy, easy thing to achieve.
Mathilda Mallinson: Something this article did that I think is also done in every story we see about a young person dying at a festival, in circumstances such as these, is it kind of strips her, it makes her the unwitting victim, strips her of any agency. You know, it’s shocking that, you know, she never touched these things. And it’s either, it’s always the boyfriend or the friends or some shady dealers that are manipulating teenagers into making these choices. Why are we so afraid to admit the reality that children and teenagers are choosing to take these substances all the time? Like, why do we need to tell ourselves that story? I don’t think that that is an accurate story.
Niamh Eastwood: No, I agree with you completely. And I think that idea of agency and choice is really important to reinforce in the drugs narrative. And also, you know, I think the idea of pleasure, you know, we take these substances, because they can create joy, they can create connections, they, they can take us on journeys, that, you know, expand our consciousness. You know, there are all these different utilities for it.
Mathilda Mallinson: And they are being played with in mental health,
Niamh Eastwood: Absolutely.
Mathilda Mallinson: about solutions now, aren’t they? We do know that there is a reason people take drugs, and why are we so afraid to ever include that in the story?
Niamh Eastwood: And that’s part of that 100-year propaganda war that we’ve talked about. You know, the fact that these substances, that could have huge, huge impact on treatments for mental health, on treatments for post-traumatic stress, for, you know, a range of health and social problems. You know, there’s lots of reasons why we would, you know, use substances, and this whole kind of prohibitionist paradigm has restricted that really interesting experience we could have all had over the last, you know, decades and maybe we’d be a better society for it. Who knows?
Mathilda Mallinson: Niamh… Juan… Thank you so much for joining us. This has been so enlightening for me, and I’m sure for all of our listeners. Can I just ask whether you have anything to plug and where we can follow you? Niamh take us away.
Niamh Eastwood: You can follow Release at release.org.uk We’re obviously on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s either @releasedrugs or @release-drugs, depending on which medium you’re using. But we also run a national helpline. So, if people get into trouble with the police, they can give us a call. All those details are on our website. But yeah, just follow our work and you know, donate if you can, there’s not much money in this area.
Helena Wadia: Juan, where can people follow you?
Juan Fernandez: Yeah, sure. So, if you want to know more about the work of the International Drug Policy Consortium, head to www.idpc.net. And if you want to get involved more actively in this struggle, go to supportdontpunish.org. We are on basically all social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, find us there.
Helena Wadia: Thank you for listening. We’ll be back with a bonus episode next week featuring more information about drugs and the war against them. And our next episode will be about sex work from lived experience on the 10th of March.
Mathilda Mallinson: Follow Media Storm wherever you get your podcasts so that you can get access to new episodes as soon as they drop. If you like what you hear, share this episode with someone and leave us a five-star rating and review. It really helps more people discover the podcast and our aim is to have as many people as possible hear these voices.
Helena Wadia: You can also follow us on social media, @MathildaMal @HelenaWadia , and follow the show via @MediaStormPod .
Mathilda Mallinson: Get in touch and let us know what you’d like us to cover and who you’d like us to speak to.
Helena Wadia: Media Storm, a new podcast from the House of Guilty Feminist as part of the Acast Creates Network. It is produced by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White. The music is by Samfire.