Skip to Content

Rethinking the ‘war on drugs’

The future of the UK's disputed drug policy

Cameron Stocker Consultant 02/05/2023

The ‘war on drugs’ has been ongoing in the UK since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971, yet opponents say it is an unwinnable war that has caused more harm than good.

Over half a century on from the UK entering the ‘war on drugs’, three quarters (72%) say the current policy is not working.
Worldwide attitudes towards drug policies have shifted

Other nations such as Portugal have started to change their stance on drug policy, in an attempt to curb crime, corruption and fatalities caused by the illegal industry. Measures such as abolishing criminal penalties for the consumption and possession of drugs have been enacted, in turn reducing addiction rates and criminal activity. Other nations have started to take steps to change drug policy, including classically conservative countries, such as the United States, which have legalised the possession and consumption of marijuana in several states.

Yet in the UK, no change in drug policy appears to be on the horizon. Do Brits see this as a good thing, or do they think change is needed? Polling from Savanta gives us insight into public opinion on the UK’s drug policy.

Majority of Brits believe the “war on drugs” is failing

Over half a century on from the UK entering the ‘war on drugs’, three quarters (72%) say the current policy is not working, including eight in ten (83%) of those aged 55+. Just one in ten (11%) Brits say the ‘war on drugs’ is working, indicating the current system is failing in the public’s minds.

Although drug sales, possession and consumption are strictly prohibited in the UK, our polling indicates that Brits still think they are used commonly. Eight in ten (83%) say marijuana is used commonly, including half (49%) that say it is used very commonly. This may not be a surprise, especially as other countries push to legalise, regulate, and tax marijuana. However, three quarters (76%) say that cocaine is used commonly, currently classified as a Class A substance. Two thirds (66%) say nitrous oxide is used commonly, followed by MDMA (65%) and heroin (63%).

Heroin is seen as the most harmful substance, as over nine in ten (95%) say it is harmful if consumed. Cocaine is seen as the second most harmful (93%), even if three quarters (76%) say it is used commonly. Somewhat surprisingly, the third most harmful substance to consume according to Brits is tobacco (89%), even while it remains completely legal to purchase from a majority of shops. Two thirds (64%) say marijuana is harmful to one’s health if consumed, but this remains the least harmful drug according to Brits, with legal substances such as e-cigarettes (70%) and alcohol (76%) seen as more damaging to a person’s health.

Attitudes toward drug decriminalisation and legislation

As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is seen to be failing and drugs are seen as commonly used in the UK, a quarter (23%) say they support decriminalising all illegal recreational drugs, a move that would be seen as using the Portuguese model of drug policy. Over a third (37%) say they support decriminalising some illegal recreational drugs, but not all. Three in ten (31%) say they do not support decriminalising any illegal recreational drugs. However, there is a disparity in age as half (47%) of those aged 55+ don’t support any decriminalisation, compared to just one in six (16%) of those aged 18-34 years old.

As marijuana is seen as the least harmful substance to consume and the most used illegal drug in the UK, it may be useful to investigate the specific substance further. Half (47%) of Brits support the legalisation of marijuana in the UK for recreational use, including a quarter (22%) that strongly support it. Three in ten (29%) oppose legalising marijuana, including one in six (17%) that strongly oppose.

The data indicates a trend that younger adults are more likely to have a more liberal attitude to drug policy, with older voters more likely to adopt a more conservative view. Just one in ten (12%) 18–24-year-olds say they oppose the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use, while half (47%) of those aged 65+ oppose. Conversely, three in ten (30%) of those aged 65+ support legalisation, with support being twice as high (61%) among the youngest in the sample (61%, 18-24).

Generational divide threatens UK political landscape

The leaders of both Labour and the Conservatives have said that they oppose the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use, meaning smaller opposition parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are the only political parties standing on a platform of legalisation. Over four in ten (44%) of those aged 18-34 say they would be more likely to vote for a political party if they stood on a platform of marijuana legalisation, while only one in eight (12%) of those aged 55+ say the same. Four in ten (40%) of those aged 55+ say they would be less likely to vote for a political party if they stood on a platform of marijuana legalisation, despite four in five (83%) of those aged 55+ saying the ‘war on drugs’ is not working.

The distinct generational divide on drug liberalisation may create a problem for both Labour and the Conservatives, who know that more conservative older adults, rather than the more liberal young, turn up at the ballot box. This may be the reason the UK has not, and perhaps will not, see a change in drug policy for decades to come.

At current, there appears to be no motivation for either party to take a stand on the issue, as ruffling feathers of the potential elderly voters is not a political strategy they want to risk. If younger adults see the ‘war on drugs’ as an issue, perhaps the only way to create change is to make their voices heard and turn up at the ballot box.

To discover more insights that are influencing the UK political landscape, please get in touch with our Politics department by clicking here.

Related reading:

Is the mother of all Parliaments a house for everyone?

New year, same struggles: How Britons attitudes of the living crisis changed

The UK’s shifting support for rail strikes

Knowledge centre

Read More