Brexit’s drug problem

For all the talk of free-trade, why is ‘Global Britain’ still behind on drug law reform? By Kojo Koram

May 30, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by Derek Gavey / Flickr

As Jacob Rees-Mogg’s widely-lambasted new book exemplifies, Brexiteers are never shy in celebrating the 19th century as the golden-age of free-trade that Britain must return to. But there is one set of commodities that they seem to forget Britain loved to trade in that era- drugs. From coca leaf cultivation in Jamaica, Sri Lanka and British Guyana to an East Indian opium trade so profitable it forced the Royal Navy to go to war China, Victorian Britain was not just the world’s superpower but also the world’s drug dealer. The commercialised drugs trade of the 19th century and the taxes accrued from it were a major source of wealth for the British empire.

However, with New Zealand recently agreeing to hold a referendum on legalizing cannabis, thereby becoming the latest country to open the gates to drug policy reform, Britain is still yet to have a serious national conversation about what today’s speculative capitalists are referring to as the ‘green rush’– the 21stcentury growth of a legal drugs trade. Even at this time economic anxiety, the British capitalist class are uncharacteristically quiet on a potential new market through which they could accumulate wealth.


Instead of exploring the potential offered by drug policy reform, Brexiteers often continue to call for harsher drugs and crime laws in order to combat knife crime, gang violence or mental health problems. Current Brexit hero-in-waiting and bookies favourite to be our next PM,  Boris Johnson, recently raged about how the punishments for ‘drug kingpins’ are ‘far too soft’ leading to ‘networks of young people who run drugs’ causing chaos across the country. Fellow Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith also complained about how drug dealers are currently allowed to operate ‘with impunity’ in the UK, leading to a ‘toxic cycle of serious violence.’ Calls to give the police greater stop and search powers has come from a range of Brexit supporting politicians including PM candidates Esther McVey, Dominic Rabb and the home secretary Sajid Javid, who boldly proclaimed ‘stop and search saves lives’, arguing that even he could have become a drug dealer himself had he taken the wrong path early in life.


The idea that stronger laws are the only answer to young people getting caught in a life of drugs, gangs and violence not only runs against Brexiteers own liberal, free-trade ideology, but also against the evidence now coming in from across the world, as more and more places implement progressive drug policy reforms. In the U.S.A, the spread of legal marijuana over the last few years has led to a fall in violent crime along border states. In Portugal, the decriminalisation of all drugs has resulted in dramatic drops in drug use, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. Canada, Uruguay and a host of American states from California to Colorado have already legalized recreational cannabis markets, while British politicians have failed to even place widescale drug policy reform on the agenda. It seems that for all the talk of ‘Global Britain’ boldly venturing into new, cutting edge industries after Brexit, the country is still too slow to adapt to the changing, modern world. Why are these conservative politicians, usually so quick to champion the benefits of deregulation and individual choice, still reluctant to openly reject a system of drug prohibition now well-evidenced as a failure and embrace a reform movement gaining traction across the globe.

The Victorian industrialists that Brexiteers so admire had a very different approach to the drugs. In stark contrast to today, where we consider those involved in the drugs trade to be ‘evil’, in the 19th century, the great liberal theorist, John Stuart Mill, considered China’s banning of the trade of opium to be morally ‘an evil’, as it went against the doctrine of free-trade. Tory politicians of that era felt much the same, leading to the Opium Wars, where British sea power forced China to reverse its ban and accept opium coming from the British East Indies, thereby protecting the opium trade as a key cornerstone of Britain’s imperial economic policy. Back at home, treasured English writers like Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge celebrated the romantic joy of opium use, whilst cocaine and heroin were freely sold from pharmacies and grocers, used to deal with everything from a toothache to the common cold. Though Brexiteers herald the benefits of 19th century free-trade, they remain wilfully blind to the Victorians approach to the drugs trade.


Perhaps this contradiction doesn’t just point to a hypocrisy within the Brexit vision of free-trading ‘Global Britain’ but also reveals how all this grand talk of liberalism often sits easily alongside draconian ideas about discipline and punishment. Are Brexiteers able to combine a near-religious commitment to liberal free-trade economics with a steadfast belief in strong drugs laws, wide stop and search powers and heavy prison sentences because they know that their vision of ‘Global Britain’ will need to be supported by a punitive criminal justice system to contain the many who will be left behind? A succession of American presidents from Ronald Regan to George W. Bush have been able to combine a deregulated economy with a strong law and order approach on issues such as drug and crime, leading to a very unequal society and an enormous prison population, primarily made up of poor people of colour. Is this the future of ‘Global Britain’? Judging from the words of the Brexiteers currently holding the Conservative government to ransom and soon to take residence in number 10, perhaps so.

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