Richard Hurley: A film that brings drug decriminalisation into the mainstream

This new film is narrated by Morgan Freeman. Video teasers feature the likes of Kate Winslet, Richard Branson, and Dizzee Rascal, declaring, “I’m breaking the taboo.”

They’re calling for drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, and heroin to be decriminalised because they say that the current, unworkable policy of prohibition causes avoidable harm to users and wider society.

Two former US presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, appear in Breaking the Taboo, having fully reversed their position since they left the White House.

And Juan M Santos, the current president of Colombia, and Otto Perez Molina, his Guatemalan counterpart, have taken up the cause while still in office.

This is in addition to support from a plethora of other former heads of state and high ranking politicians, scientists, lawyers, and non-governmental organisations.

If this were not enough to draw attention to the failure of the “war on drugs,” this hour long film is being hosted for free on YouTube in the month after release on 7 December.

The film’s message is that 50 years of prohibition have not reduced harm from drugs. The alternative should be policy based in evidence and which recognises drug dependency as disease to treat where necessary rather than to consider it a crime to be punished.

Such harm includes criminal activity and prostitution by users to finance dependency; violence associated with the criminal supply network; and spread of HIV among drug injectors.

The film presents sobering statistics: the illicit drug market is worth $350bn a year; a sum of $2.5 trillion has been spent on prohibition to date; 500 000 people languish in US prisons for drug offences; Mexico has seen 47 000 drug related murders; and Russia has a million people with HIV, where drug injection is the key driver.

But can this film convince Barack Obama, who is key to a change in global policy? And can it also win over the right wing popular press? The Daily Mail has already labelled Winslet “silly and irresponsible.”

A 1961 United Nations convention, and more recent US policies, have allowed countries few options other than zero tolerance of drug use. But Breaking the Taboo describes innovative policies in Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

In Portugal, for example, people in possession of small quantities of drugs now appear before “dissuasion” panels rather than court, where psychiatrists and social workers offer help.

The film was made by Branson’s son, Sam. At the glitzy premiere in London were calls for a new regime of drug “regulation.” But Western governments today favour less state control, preferring to delegate responsibility for public health to industry.

Could free markets and voluntary codes do a better job than law enforcement as a way to tackle drug harm?

One member of a unanimous panel that discussed the film after the screening suggested that people who use drugs exist in a dichotomy, either finding them “fun” or “boring.” But decriminalisation won’t only affect middle class teenagers experimenting with marijuana or city sophisticates seeking to lawfully snort coke at dinner parties. Dependency, on injecting drugs in particular, can cause inexorable misery and disproportionately affects society’s poorest people.

The case for reform of global drug policy is surely clear, and by engaging people power Breaking the Taboo will force the issue up the political agenda. But honest, evidence based debate must also consider that drugs themselves cause harm.

Decriminalisation alone is not enough. We need radical solutions that may differ from country to country. And we need to acknowledge that different drugs may harm different people in different ways.

Richard Hurley is deputy magazine editor, BMJ