News     18/07/2023

A drug-free Wales is possible

A drug-free Wales is possible

Last year the Welsh Government published A smoke-free Wales: our long-term tobacco control strategy. This is a plan to end smoking as a significant feature of Welsh life by 2030 and it was widely welcomed and seen as credible in the context of the rapid decline in smoking and the growing acceptance that everybody would be better off if we finished with tobacco once and for all. I would like to make the case for doing the same with illegal drugs.

Adferiad exists to help people recover from addiction and mental health problems – and often the two go hand-in-hand. We are led by people who use our services and our board of trustees includes people who have experienced addiction; and many of our staff also have lived experience – that’s what makes them so effective as therapists. We all share the goal of ending the misery and waste caused by drugs and we believe it can be done if the will is there in government – and we know the will is already there in the wider community and especially in those neighbourhoods which suffer from high levels of drug use and its wider effects on health, crime, and disorder.

And yet there is a reluctance among politicians and others in authority to commit themselves to removing drugs from our society; indeed there is actually a significant level of support among policy makers for normalising drug use by accepting safer use of drugs as a sufficient goal, reducing legal enforcement or even legalising drugs. Why would that be?

About fifty years ago a significant minority thought that drugs didn’t do much harm and that anyway this was a matter of personal choice. It was not a view shared by society at large and there was a disproportionate use of law enforcement to clamp down; meanwhile not much was done to help those who were suffering from addiction.

Not surprising then that people started to wonder if enforcement was the right approach. In addition drug use was on the rise and becoming accepted among a significant minority. If this was the future then it was a fair question whether an accommodation with drugs was needed, although neither the public nor the authorities were convinced by this.

Today much has changed. The devastating effects of addiction are well known and even cannabis – long felt to be a harmless outlier – has proved to be addictive and a significant cause of psychotic illness (in Adferiad we know all about that through our work supporting people with a serious mental illness). And yet the reluctance to confront drugs remains and a more permissive and fatalistic approach is still seen as progressive and sensible by many in authority. What is going on?

The problem seems to be that people have not kept up to date – not just with the growing evidence of harm caused by drugs but also with how society perceives drugs. Some in authority may not be aware of this but drug use has not proved to be an ever increasing habit: on the contrary drug use has  fallen dramatically in the last 25 years in particular among young people. Drug use is going down – a lot: government should get alongside this trend, not compromise it. Meanwhile drug deaths among older users are up – a legacy of higher historical rates of use and another reason to put drugs behind us.

Those who advocate acceptance of drug use adduce other arguments which should also be considered…

It is pointed out that treating people who use drugs as criminals is counter-productive. But in practice very few people who use drugs are prosecuted: and quite right too – it is disproportionate and unhelpful in most circumstances. But actual decriminalisation of use or just ceasing enforcement has major consequences, above all in making drug use visible and “acceptable” in daily life. Take a look at the catastrophe which Welsh entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Moritz has drawn attention to in San Francisco where the withdrawal of drug control measures has turned much of the city centre into a frightening and desperate no-go area for ordinary citizens. The law is needed to keep order, reflect society’s justifiable abhorrence of drugs, and prevent vulnerable people from being tempted into use.

It is also said that decriminalisation of supply would put the criminals who push drugs out of business. The same argument is made in the United States in defence of the legal supply of firearms – but in denial of the obscene rate of homicide in that country. It is a counsel of despair to legalise something very harmful just in order to reduce illegal supply. It is also obvious that much easier and visible access to drugs will increase use, reversing the downward trend.

Two other points. It is entirely right to prescribe otherwise illegal drugs and supply safe means of using them to some specific individuals suffering acutely from addiction: this can help them achieve recovery safely. It has nothing to do with normalising drug use in wider society or with any idea that “safe use” is a sufficient goal for an individual or for those helping them. There is also nothing wrong with exploring the use of otherwise illegal drugs for treating illness (use of cannabis for pain relief, for example): this is already the case with some opiates and has nothing to do with recreational drug use. These points should be obvious but false connections are often made and need to be called out.

A drug-free Wales is possible if we have the courage of our convictions. Drug use can be marginalised rapidly by working with and encouraging the already decreasing demand while sustaining pressure on the criminals who supply. Meanwhile we must work much harder to help people with addiction problems through prompt treatment and support which is both compassionate and assertive.

Information about Adferiad’s support for people affected by addiction can be found at

Article by: Clive Wolfendale, Chairman of Adferiad.

Originally printed in the Western Mail on Monday 17 July, 2023.