Unlike in many other countries, the UK’s drug policy has seen little development in recent years. Are concerns that liberalisation would not have public support well-founded? Albert Ward finds public support for significant reform is promising but capricious, and easily influenced by how questions are asked.
What is the future for drug reform in the UK? While other countries have already legalised recreational use marijuana or gone further, decriminalising hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, the UK drugs regime has not changed much in the last few decades. Many more countries have implemented minor policies, such as supervised consumption or the medical use of hard drugs.
Much hesitance from policymakers and the media comes from the impression that the public would be opposed to any attempt at liberalisation. How true is this? Evidence from a range of polling sources reveals that people in the UK have subtle preferences for liberalisation of drug laws, which can vary greatly depending on which options are presented to them and how questions are asked.
No blanket support for legalisation
Much of the current debate centres on legalisation. When it comes to marijuana legalisation – the most-used illegal drug in the UK and the most obvious candidate for liberalisation – the public is split. A poll by Redfield and Winton in 2022 found 38 per cent opposed to 35 per cent in favour, with 20 per cent neither supporting nor opposing and 7 per cent stating they “don’t know”.
Question wording and presentation is key, though. Remove that “neither” option, as a 2019 Yougov poll did, and give people who do not support either side outright the option to “tend to support/oppose”, and 53 per cent support such legalisation, against 31 per cent opposed, with 15 per cent “don’t knows”. Note also, however, that most polls ignore the subtle difference between decriminalisation (removing criminal sanctions, and potentially replacing them with civil penalties, while drugs still remain illegal) and legalisation (removing all penalties for possession and personal use).
When it comes to legalisation of hard drugs, public opposition is far higher and more stable. A 2022 Yougov survey found 86 per cent in support of keeping such drugs illegal (the survey offered only the choice between legal, illegal but not criminal, and illegal and criminal). Other surveys demonstrate similar levels of support. Similarly, people tend to be far less forgiving of distributors and sellers of drugs: 71 per cent in that same Yougov poll thought that selling soft drugs should be illegal, while 89 per cent believed the same for hard drugs.
A nuanced picture on punitive measures
Still, this general opposition to legalisation does not necessarily translate into support for strict penalties. While large numbers of Britons are supportive of harsh sentences for relatively minor crimes, 61 per cent support handing those caught personally using drugs – technically in danger of long jail time – community service sentences or less. If you ask people directly to choose what punishments should be meted out for personal use possession, the top two results – beating prison by 30 per cent – are education or treatment (54 per cent of people chose) and a fine (49 per cent).
Again, however, question wording muddies the picture. If you ask Brits whether, in general, they think drug laws in the UK are too strict or too lenient, 40 per cent agree with the latter, while only 19 per cent with the former (24 per cent think they are about right). People even think stricter laws would be effective, at least in some areas. A majority – 53 per cent – believe that harsher punishments would deter distribution and sale of illegal drugs, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Part of this confusion may come down to a lack of awareness of what penalties are applied to different drug offences, or to large differences between the penalties people think should apply to soft and hard drugs, which have not been captured by pollsters, at least in recent surveys. It may also be that, while people have a generalised sense that the current drugs regime is failing and should be stricter, when presented with specific options, they soften their stance.
Evidence of a shift away from a criminalising approach?
There is some evidence for this with minor liberalisation measures, where public support is far higher than the inconsistent evidence for legalisation. Clear majorities of people in the UK support overdose prevention centres, drug safety checking services, or the ready availability of anti-overdose drugs. This reflects a general support for a refocusing of drug policy towards health and addiction treatment rather than as a principally criminal issue. It might also be that the middling enthusiasm for decriminalisation or legalisation is a lower bound of the true level of support, which people may be unwilling to divulge to pollsters.
Clear majorities of people in the UK support overdose prevention centres, drug safety checking services, or the ready availability of anti-overdose drugs.
The survey which found the highest outright support for marijuana legalisation, not counting a “tend to” option: a 2022 Redfield and Winton poll, prefaced the question with a short explanation of what such a policy would look like. It found 48 per cent in favour, with 27 per cent opposed (18 per cent expressed neither, and 6 per cent “don’t know”). This suggests that public preferences for at least some aspects of drug policy are malleable, and sensitive to explanation of the issues at hand. Information scarcity may play a role. 58 per cent of people in the UK are not at all or only slightly aware of current drug policy (note that the wording implies alcohol and tobacco are considered drugs in this survey).
The War on Drugs is, in terms of efficacy, a strong candidate for the worst public policy decision of the last fifty years, almost wherever you are in the world. For something which the vast majority of Britons believe is not working – nearly two-thirds think criminalising drugs is an ineffective way of preventing their use – there is clearly desire for reform.
Support for change is capricious, however; it varies greatly depending on what options people are presented with, and how questions are worded. If there is to be policy change, politicians must therefore take great care to consider public opinion. This does not mean that they should reject radical solutions. Legalisation and decriminalisation can be effective at reducing drug harm, if not use; we should thus not discount them. Such policies can be hard to sell to voters, though. If they are to be considered in the UK, they should be part of a programme of reform, which includes efforts to reduce drug-related crime and lessen addiction. Their effect and their implementation must be explained, accompanied by a real effort to inform people. Most importantly perhaps, they must appear part of a logical progression of policies, and not seem like they are an unwarranted change forced upon people.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: Photo by Jeff W via unsplash.