Intended for healthcare professionals

Analysis War on Drugs

How changes to drug prohibition could be good for the UK—an essay by Molly Meacher and Nick Clegg

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 14 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6006
  1. Molly Meacher, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform,
  2. Nick Clegg, member of parliament
  1. Houses of Parliament, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: M Meacher meachermc{at}

Parliamentarians Molly Meacher and Nick Clegg discuss regulation for cannabis, heroin, and so called legal highs and call for an end to criminal sanctions for the possession and use of all drugs

Drug policy has been irrational for a long time—for 55 years to be precise. The United Nations drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 were rooted in the belief that banning a list of substances including heroin, cannabis, and cocaine would lead to a steady reduction in their use and the damage they cause. In turn, this would achieve the overarching objective of the conventions—to advance human health and welfare.1

Yet never has any evidence suggested that such a hypothesis was valid. Indeed, a growing body of evidence gathered since 1961 shows no correlation between the severity of the laws that prohibit drugs and the level of drug use.2 Far from diminishing over time, drug use has grown substantially worldwide.3 Many drugs are stronger and more dangerous now than they were before prohibition. “Skunk” has largely replaced lower potency cannabis; crack provides a more intense high than powder cocaine; and recently we have seen an explosion in use of potent new synthetic drugs. In short, the simplistic prohibitionist interpretation of the UN conventions has failed to achieve their overarching objective.

Finally, in April this year, the rhetoric changed fundamentally. After much discussion with reformers, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which helps member states meet their treaty obligations, made clear at a special session of the UN General Assembly that drug policies must be evidence based and aim to improve public health.

Development of an evidence base requires trying different approaches. These should be rigorously evaluated to identify policies or models that can best reduce addiction, minimise harm, cut violence, and reduce profits for …

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