Boris Johnson’s 10-Year Drug Plan

In February 2020, Dame Carol Black published a review of drug policy, commissioned by the Home Secretary in 2019. Her review offered an insight into illegal drug practices in the UK, alongside recommendations for substance rehabilitation, prevention, and recovery.

Her research found that drug use (and harm caused by drugs) was on the rise in the UK, with drug-related deaths at a record high. It also exposed the extent of the exploitation of young and vulnerable people by drug-trading gangs, who coerce children to deal drugs in ‘county lines’ from cities to the country.

In response, the government has developed a 10-year plan to reduce drug-related crime, harm, death, and overall use. The plan involves three main strategies:

  • Breaking drug supply chains
  • Delivering a world-class treatment and recovery system
  • Achieving a generational shift in the demand for drugs

The plan aims to combat illegal drug use and trade while increasing treatment opportunities for people addicted to drugs to help them build better futures.

The plan has high aims. By the end of 2024/25, the government expects to have prevented nearly 1000 deaths and delivered an expansion of treatment capacity by 20% – including 7500 treatment places for those at risk of rough sleeping and a place for every offender with addiction. They aim to close over 2000 more county lines and, by 2030, reduce overall use to a 30-year low.

The 10-year plan is a ‘whole-government’ project involving several departments, working towards common goals. Different departments will oversee the various strategies of the program, through a variety of means. Some of the measures proposed by the drug strategy include:

  • Seizing drug dealers’ phones and contacting their clients with resources for support
  • Investing up to £145m to break down county lines, targeting transport networks and supporting exploited persons
  • Supporting the police forces to test more individuals on arrest
  • Implementing harsher consequences for those who misuse drugs
  • Increasing investment in treatment and recovery made available through local authorities

1. Breaking The Supply Chain

Despite the plan’s high aims, drug reform campaigners have criticised what they see as an overly punitive approach to harm reduction. They argue that, by mainly focusing on finding and penalising drug traders and users, the plan mimics the ‘war on drugs’ of the Nixon area in the 1970s. Rather than leading to a reduction in drug-related harm, the policy is widely thought to have led to unnecessary imprisonment or exclusion from society of thousands of people along ethnic and racial lines.

Critics note that the UK government has taken a ‘tough on drugs’ approach for years, with little success – drug-related deaths have continued to increase year on year. They point to other authorities adopting more progressive approaches: New York is opening drug consumption rooms and over 30 countries have put an end to sanctions for drug possession. With a third of fifteen-year-olds in the UK now reporting that they have used drugs, they argue that social support and education may be a more viable strategy than punishment.

In regards to drug policy, the dialogue in the UK is very different from countries such as the United States, across the political parties. While Joe Biden recently stated that “no one should go to jail for the use of a drug,” Kevin Starmer proudly told Sky News that he had prosecuted “many, many cases involving drugs and drug gangs” when he was a director of public prosecutions. Unlike drug reform campaigners, Yvette Cooper’s response to Johnson’s 10-year plan focused on the fact that, under the Conservative government, “more and more offenders are getting away with their crimes as overall prosecutions have plummeted.”

It’s unclear why drug reform dialogue amongst UK politicians seems so far removed from other countries and even the wider public. Some commentators suggest that presenting drug use as a cause of social evils saves politicians from having to admit, address, and tackle deeper structural issues that underlie liberal democracy. While other citizens who embrace referendums (like Switzerland and California) have voted through more progressive policies, the UK’s centralised government and fatigue with direct democracy have kept those doors closed.

2. Treatment and Recovery

On the other hand, there is a consensus of support for the second strategy of the 10-year plan: increased access to treatment and recovery. Drug addiction is characterised by physical changes in the brain, and most people with substance use disorders need help and support to recover. Policies of penalization will not deter a person addicted to drugs, who tends to compulsively seek and use drugs despite any negative consequences.

Providing access to treatment is particularly important for people in the prison system. Without support, chronic drug abuse can reinforce social and psychological problems that lead to reoffending, through an inability to stay at work or maintain functioning relationships. Extensive research shows that prison-based drug treatments can curb reoffending rates and reduce gang-related crimes.

3. A Generational Shift

One aspect of the third strategy aims to use education and social interventions to prevent young people from turning to drugs. The plan involves school-based preventions that support young people to learn and understand the risks of drug use. It also involves targeted support for those most at risk of substance misuse.

With research suggesting that home environment, early life adversity, and peer pressure are key risk factors for addiction, effective interventions in schools and families are a crucial part of tackling drug abuse. With these interventions, the government aims to achieve a generational shift in the demand for drugs.

A second aspect of the strategy involves tougher consequences for adults to deter their behaviour. As with strategy one, this policy raises similar questions about the effectiveness of criminalisation as a deterrent for drug use and harm-reduction policy. The government’s proposal includes non-financial penalties – like passport and driving licence confiscation – that may target wealthy professionals as well as street users.

Will the Plan Work?

The success of the 10-year plan will be evaluated over the decade: the government will use ONS crime survey data and NHS digital statistics to assess whether the policies have decreased crime and reduced harm. Until then, the jury is out on whether the plans will succeed.

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