Recreational drug use

In recent years, various politicians and members of law enforcement have linked recreational drug use—the use of drugs for pleasure or leisure, often as part of someone’s lifestyle—especially by middle-class users, to an increase in drug-related violence. For example, in 2018, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that cocaine use at “middle class parties” was fuelling drug-related gang violence. The following year, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick argued that middle-class recreational drug users have “blood on their hands”. Similarly the Police Federation’s Simon Kempton has said that middle-class drug users bear responsibility for the drug trade and related violence. He argued that middle-class drug use is less visible to the police as it takes place behind closed doors and is not necessarily funded by other crimes in the same way street-level use often is. Despite this lack of visibility, he said that middle-class use contributes to organised crime alongside street-level use.

More recently, in December 2021 Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Guardian that people who “have a line of cocaine may not think that they’re causing anyone harm, or that they’re playing a part in a criminal enterprise”. He argued that they are, however, the “final link in a chain that has suffering, violence and exploitation at every stage”. He said that behind every illicit drug was a human cost, highlighting county lines operations where gangs from major urban areas exploit drug markets in other towns and areas, often using children and vulnerable people. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has also said that users of lifestyle drugs were feeding demand for illegal drugs. He argued that while the crime may seem victimless to many users, this was not the case. He announced that the Government would be looking at new ways to penalise recreational users.

UK’s drug market

In February 2020, Dame Carol Black published phase one of her independent review of drugs, commissioned by the Government in 2019. Examining the UK’s drug market, she labelled it as “big business” and estimated its worth at £9.4bn a year. She also highlighted that around three million people took drugs in England and Wales in the previous year, with around 300,000 in England taking the most harmful drugs: opiates and/or crack cocaine.

Focusing on the impact of illicit drug use, Dame Carol noted that drug deaths had reached an all-time high. Her research also showed that the illicit drugs market had become much more violent, with many children drawn into the drugs trade through the county lines model. She estimated that the total costs of drugs to society—when taking the health harms, costs of crime and wider impacts on society together—were over £19bn, more than twice the value of the market itself.

New drugs strategy

In December 2021, the UK Government launched a 10-year plan to combat illegal drugs. Entitled ‘From Harm to Hope’, it set out the Government’s proposals to tackle the supply of drugs and support those with an addiction. It said that Government would make a “record investment of over £3bn in the next three years” to fund the strategy.

As part of this plan, the Government outlined that it would deliver “more meaningful, fairer and tougher consequences for those who use drugs recreationally”. It said that a white paper to be published in 2022 would contain measures to target those “who currently feel, perhaps because of where they live or socialise, that they are not at risk of facing legal consequences from their use”.

The Government said that it would ensure repeat offenders faced consequences. It also said that it would explore options to change behaviour through civil sanctions and court orders. This could include measures such as: curfews; the temporary removal of a passport or driving licence; and increasing fines “to maximise the deterrent and dissuasion of financial penalties”. In addition, it said that the white paper would look at options to expand the use of drug testing on arrest to “allow this tool to be targeted towards so-called recreational users”.

Reaction to the plans

Some commentators have questioned the Government’s focus on recreational users and the evidence it is based on. For example, Ian Hamilton, associate professor of addiction at the University of York, has welcomed the parts of the Government’s plan about investment in drug treatment. However, he labelled the continued focus on punishing those who use drugs “depressing”. He argued that “there is no evidence to suggest this will make any difference to levels of drug use and further limits the life opportunities of those who are caught using drugs”. He also questioned the links between middle-class drug users and county lines, stating that “there is no evidence that powder cocaine is supplied and distributed via county lines dealing, as these networks focus on supplying heroin and crack cocaine”. Journalist Max Daly agreed with this, however, he also argued that the trade in powder cocaine is “highly unethical” despite being a lifeline for some.

Also questioning the plans, Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the drug policy foundation Transform, said that such users represent a “tiny fraction” of total cocaine use and are not supplied by county lines. He argued that “the focus on middle-class users feels like an exercise in distraction and blame shifting from wider failures of government policy”. In addition, Helen Clark, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has argued that the policy for the most part “doubles down on the rhetoric and policies of the failed war on drugs”. In addition, Baroness Bennett of Castle Manor (Green Party) has questioned the impact on individuals who hold more than one passport and asked how the proposals might affect those who have problematic drug use issues and are “struggling to get their life on track”.

Writing for Conservative Home, Emily Carver, media manager at the Institute for Economic Affairs, said that while recreational drug users should refrain from drug use, she does not believe the Government’s plans will work. However, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, Philip Wilkinson, has welcomed the measures. Brendan O’Neill, chief politics writer at the Spectator, has also welcomed the plans, arguing that action should be taken against those who fuel demand for illegal drugs.


Cover image by NordWood Themes on Unsplash.