Our infamous war on drugs

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Our infamous war on drugs

The United Kingdom has recently announced the replacement of its previous anti-drug policy with a new approach to tackling narcotic abuse. Admitting that the old way of doing things wasn’t really working, 50 years after the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, Her Majesty’s Government has launched a 10-year strategy which aims at “treating drug abuse not just as law enforcement but as problem for all society that all of government must deal with”. 1

The reform comes with a sense of urgency. According to the latest National Crime Agency annual report, more than 150 tones of drugs were seized at a time when deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales have hit a record high, prompting charities to warn of a public health emergency. 2

The so-called long-term fix was launched with a punch line: “Drugs are a toxic scourge on our society“.

We are going to clamp down on the county lines drugs gangs with £300 million of funding and invest in rehabilitation to help drug users get their lives back on track“, tweeted the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on December 6.

Originally tweeted by Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) on 6th December 2021.

These lines, followed by his foreword in the new 10-year drugs plan’s textbook sound impactful: “And there will be no implicit tolerance of so-called recreational drug users. We cannot allow the impression to be given that occasional drug use is acceptable. It isn’t. So there will be new penalties for drug users.” 1

Boris Johnson’s words sound impactful and can be dangerously misrepresentative. Drug abuse is a problem for all society and the numbers of deaths from drug poisoning are soaring, but approximately half of all the deaths from poisoning in 2020 involved an opiate – pain relief medication such as codeine and fentanyl – while the other half conveys a mix directly or indirectly related to hard drugs such as crack cocaine, heroine, and crystal methamphetamine. 2

There have also been increasing numbers of deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2020 (a rise of 19.3% when compared with 2019; from 399 to 476 deaths), pregabalin (a rise of 41.0%; from 244 to 344 deaths), gabapentin (a rise of 32.6%; from 89 to 118 deaths) and zopiclone (a rise of 4.3%; from 140 to 146 deaths). 3

This chart from 2015 is still representative of a forgotten reality – Britain’s most lethal drugs are legal.

Statista’s chart in The Independent -2015

The assumption made for the new drug policy is that although recreational drug users might feel distant and immune to the tragedy that heavy addiction represents to the lives of many, they are effectively contributing to an opportunistic illegal drug trade that promotes criminality and violence in the country.

 “And for adults taking recreational drugs, who are too often sheltered from the serious violence, human exploitation, severe addiction and crime of the drugs trade, there will be tougher consequences which will be felt more strongly than today. A White Paper next year will consider a series of escalating sanctions such as curfews or the temporary removal of a passport or driving licence, and increased fines.” 1

From Harm to Hope – The layout of Britain’s new anti-drugs plan.

The brand new and ambitious plan, that aims at cutting crime, saving lives and challenging the very notion of ‘recreational drug use’ also dreams of becoming a part-whole model for the world.

However, “From harm to hope” quickly aroused distrust in the public and harsh criticism on social media, especially after The Sunday Times reported that traces of cocaine had been found at numerous sites in the British Parliament. 4

The newspaper said drug detection wipes found traces of cocaine in 11 of the 12 locations that were tested. Those locations were only accessible to lawmakers, their staff and journalists, who are all accredited.

The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle with Poppy, a weapons detection dog who was honoured for her role during the 2017 terrorist attack on Borough Market – The Sunday Times.

It was immediately questioned what kind of legitimacy and authority a corrupted government might have in implementing any kind of long-term, overarching and stricter anti-drug policy. The British Home Office’s new crackdown on drugs unearthed reminiscences of past drug combat strategies and revealed a flashing red light over the risks of a similar mindset for the future.

The Prime Minister cosplays a police officer to promote the Government’s new drugs plan.

The drug war imagery started by Nixon, subdued by Carter, then ratcheted up again in the Reagan administration has had significant repercussions on the way drug policy is enforced, from policymakers on down to street-level cops. It’s war rhetoric that gave us the Pentagon giveaway program, where millions of pieces of surplus military equipment (such as tanks) have been transferred to local police departments. War imagery set the stage for the approximately 1,200 percent rise in the use of SWAT teams since the early 1980s, and has fostered the militaristic mentality too prevalent in too many police departments today.” – recalls Radley Balko, journalist and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop.5

Police militarization has failed in its stated goal of reducing domestic street-level drug activity in America, but it has significantly increased police brutality and the abuse against low socioeconomic status groups and ethnic minorities.

As Lieblich and Shinar properly argue, police militarization implies a presumption of threat. It is primarily preventive rather than strictly reactive and it is collective rather than individual. However, when militarization becomes normalized, the presumption of threat becomes normalized as well and it tends to rely on collective assumptions of these potential threats and the violent responses required against them, instead of rational, evidence-based, individualized assessments and measures. 6

Minnesota State Patrol stand at E Lake St. and 29th Ave S in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 29th, 2020. (Photo: Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

It also reminded us of the murderous, bloodthirsty war on drugs in Philippines, the flagship of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist campaign, that has arrested, made disappear and executed not only drug dealers and drug users but political enemies. A preemptive, violent war on drugs that serves to disguise and sustain the government’s fierce persecution of political dissidents, journalists, environmental activists, community leaders throughout the country.

‘In the face of multiple threats, criminal charges and two arrests, journalist Maria Ressa has continued to speak out.’ Maria Ressa is escorted by police after posting bail. Photograph: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Great Britain is not Philippines, though, where police and unidentified gunmen linked to the police have committed thousands of extrajudicial executions and arrests. State authority in the UK is not enforced through arbitrary actions but based on the rule of law and human rights are protected.

Great Britain is not America, though. There are some stark differences between policing in the US and the UK, in the prevalence of guns/firearms among the general public, in the number and race/ethnicity of civilians killed in police shootings and in custody.

But worries are justified and their rationale is pertinent, as journalist Ian Dunt, author of How to be a liberal, rightly points out: “The people caught up in the Home Office’s new initiative will be disproportionately from ethnic minorities and poor.”

“The War on drugs is in fact a war against the working class, a war against minorities, a war against evidence-based policy, a war against personal freedom, a war against reason.”

Colombian soldier surrounded by bales of marijuana, Cali, Colombia, March 2013. Jamie Saldarriaga, Reuters. 

Beyond our personal opinions on the individual’s right to choose how to live, to have fun and escape a grip on reality, also on how far recreational drugs use can represent any kind of setback to domestic security and social well-being, fact is that the concept of a modern state was built upon the role of directing and organizing individual choices on behalf of the collectivity, the common good and the social order.

The Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil brings the clear example:

Article 196. Health is a right of all and a duty of the State and shall be guaranteed
by means of social and economic policies aimed at reducing the risk of illness and
other hazards and at the universal and equal access to actions and services for its
promotion, protection and recovery.

The Constitution is a social contract with the State in which the people consent to the government exercising certain powers. By this contract, Brazilian people accepts that the Brazilian Government is responsible for establishing public policies that reduce the risk of illness and other hazards to its citizens. These policies include health promotion, prevention, universal access to medical and social care, but also anti-drug campaigns and laws, considered a matter of public health and national security.

Based on the State’s role of preserver and caretaker of the country’s social and cultural heritage, New Zealand approved a new law to extinguish tobacco use among its citizens. The idea is considered innovative – “the new legislation means the legal smoking age will increase every year, to create a smoke-free generation of New Zealanders. We want to make sure young people never start smoking so we will make it an offence to sell or supply smoked tobacco products to new cohorts of youth. People aged 14 when the law comes into effect will never be able to legally purchase tobacco.” – declared associate health minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall. 8

The country alleges concern for the future of its native populations, the Māori and the Pasifika, who have been affected by addiction in much higher proportion than the New Zealand European population.

Fact is that the new policy proposed by the government, in a bid to make the country smoke free by 2025, was welcomed by nationals and did not evoke outspoken outrage from the international community. What makes New Zealand so different from Great Britain, from the United States, from Philippines in our eyes?

I would like you to watch the video campaign for the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan and observe the presentation, the game-changing focus areas and the key outcomes proposed. 9

The priority designed by the action plan is to involve the hardly affected by addiction strata of the population in the process of decision-making and capacitating their own leadership to take the lead on the project.

The second game-changing strategy is to promote health education in the community, empowering people on their quit journey. Thirdly, comes investing in health support and assistance which includes a tailored stop smoking service.

Law enforcement comes with tactics directed to the tobacco industry and retailers, giving them commercial incentives to produce and sell low-level nicotine smoked tobacco products and reducing the number of shops selling them.

At no time law enforcement is conceived to act directly upon the population, criminalizing users or inflicting penalties upon them. The most distinctively feature of New Zealand’s “Smokefree” action plan is that police intervention is not designed as an essential resource, as the necessary machinery of the project.

Yes, we are dealing with drugs and drug addiction, but Aotearoa does not think it as a war.

Obviously, risks do exist that the illegal trade of cigarettes takes the underground and becomes means of profit to the organized crime and local gangs, but truth be told, no one dared to compare the new measures in tackling addiction to safeguard the Māori with Reagan’s or Duterte’s wars on drugs, no one questioned the legitimacy of the New Zealand government in planning strict rules for the good of the population as happened in Great Britain.

And if police action comes to be necessary at some point? Political scientist Brian Klaas explains in his new book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes US how New Zealand decided to improve upon its already-low levels of police violence by focusing on who the police are.

New Zealand police created socially engaging, light-hearted and even comic recruitment videos to make it clear that welcome applicants are women, indigenous people and whoever is interested in taking care of the community. Rather than the Punisher, they want the Helper. 10

“If they take quite a military-style or adversarial approach in dealing with the community, it doesn’t work out for them”, declares Kaye Ryan – deputy chief executive for people with the New Zealand police. Rather than equipping their community cops like soldiers and emphasizing recruitment from the army, the New Zealand police guarantee that behaving like a soldier on the streets of Wellington means you won’t get to put on a police uniform in the first place. As a result, New Zealand has one of the most effective and least abusive police forces on the planet. 11

New Zealand police recruitment campaign – Do you care enough to be a cop?

This renewed commitment to a less violent and more caring way of policing comes as a relief to the population. After two consecutive mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, during Friday Prayer on 15 March 2019, New Zealand’s police, interpreting them as a terrorist attack, introduced a pilot program to send heavily armed police teams on patrol in three communities. The police said it would enable them to respond more quickly to violent crime.12

Julia Amua Whaipooti, a Māori lawyer and activist in Wellington, received the police announcement with fear. Both of the communities near Auckland that were selected for armed patrols had large populations of Māori and Pacific Islanders, another minority community in New Zealand.

“Even though the perpetrator of the crime that inspired the pilot program was white, it’s predominantly brown communities they’re patrolling. We are on the precipice of heading towards an Americanization of our policing”, said Julia.

Protesters march on June 1 in Auckland, New Zealand, in solidarity with demonstrations across the United States following the killing of George Floyd.
Hannah Peters/Getty Images

We must be aware that police militarization is the monstrous creature of our infamous war on drugs, but the war on terrorism made it reach unparalleled levels of racial and religious discrimination, brutality and human rights violation.

On the morning of July 22, 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian electrician, was shot and killed by police on a tube station in South London on his way to work. The shooting happened the day after failed suicide bomb attacks on three London tube stations and a bus, and 15 days after the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on trains and a bus killed 52 and wounded many others. Jean Charles was in no way connected with the bombings or attempted bombings. The fatal shooting was in line with firearms tactics developed to deal with suspected suicide bombers after the September 11 attacks on the United States.13

A tribute to Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Station. (Photo: Loz Pycock / Creative Commons)

In a bid to make the country smoke free by 2025, New Zealand’s attempt to protect the health of its citizens seems essentially legitimate and different from Great Britain’s, the United States’ and Philippines’ because of the sense of honesty, credibility and coherence we naturally discern in its public policies and in the government’s political posture.

Drug abuse is not only a matter of law enforcement. Actually, there should be no distinction between legal and illegal substances when viewing the impact of drug abuse on the community.

It is obvious that drug users perpetrate the vicious cycle that feeds criminality, violence and human exploitation associated to narcotrafficking, but the use of drugs should not be considered criminal activity in itself because the user lacks the intention of causing harm and the comprehension of social interdependence. There is a bit of individual selfishness and alienation but it all starts with ruining one’s own life and relationships.

There is no righteous war to be fought when the enemy is within. Any violence leads to self destruction.

Drug abuse is not a conscious choice, it is a call for help and the very substance of hopelessness. No one is long-lastingly searching for pleasure or insurgence in drugs and whoever makes continuous use of them knows how short is the elation, and how deep, painful and solitary the confinement, the loss of oneself.

In order to solve society’s drug problem, rather than the Punisher, rather than the Warrior, rather than the Officer, we desperately need the Helper, the Educator, the Healer.


1. From harm to hope – A 10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives – HM Government – December 2021 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1039240/From_harm_to_hope_PDF-final_bookmarked_v3.pdf

2. Marsh, S. and Carrell, S. – Drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales reach record high – Aug 3, 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/aug/03/drug-poisoning-deaths-in-england-and-wales-reach-record-high

3. Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales from 1993 to 2020, by cause of death, sex, age and substances involved in the death. – Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsrelatedtodrugpoisoninginenglandandwales/2020

4. Wheeler, C. & Urwin, R. – Sniffer dogs could prowl corridors of power amid claims drug abuse is rife – Speaker vows to crack down as fears grow that cannabis and cocaine is being used openly at Westminster – The Sunday Times, December 05, 2021. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sniffer-dogs-could-prowl-corridors-of-power-amid-claims-drug-abuse-is-rife-rsfx6hg9t

5. Radley Balko to The Daily Dish – “We’re Not At War With People In This Country.” – May 15, 2009. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/05/-were-not-at-war-with-people-in-this-country/201870/

6. Lieblich, Eliav & Shinar, Adam – The Case Against Police Militarization, 23 MICH. J. RACE & L. 105 (2018). Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjrl/vol23/iss1/4

7. Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil, 3nd edition – Constitutional text from October 5, 1988. Available at: https://www.globalhealthrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Brazil-constitution-English.pdf

8. McClure, Tess – New Zealand to ban smoking for next generation in bid to outlaw habit by 2025. – December, 8 – 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/09/new-zealand-to-ban-smoking-for-next-generation-in-bid-to-outlaw-habit-by-2025

9. Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan. December 9, 2021. Available at: https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/preventative-health-wellness/tobacco-control/smokefree-aotearoa-2025-action-plan

10. Klaas, Brian – Focus on Who Police Are, Not What They Do, November 4, 2021. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/how-new-zealand-used-humor-reform-police/620598/

11. Klaas, Brian. Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us – 2021, John Murray Press.Available at: https://www.johnmurraypress.co.uk/titles/brian-klaas/corruptible/9781529338089/

12. Warner, Gregory – As New Zealand Police Pledge To Stay Unarmed, Maori Activists Credit U.S. Protests. June 11, 2020. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/11/874851593/as-new-zealand-police-pledge-to-stay-unarmed-maori-activists-credit-u-s-protests

13. McCulloch, J., & Sentas, V. (2006). The Killing of Jean Charles de Menezes: Hyper-Militarism in the Neoliberal Economic Free-Fire Zone. Social Justice, 33(4 (106)), 92–106. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768402

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