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Margaret Thatcher's Progressive Drug Policy Legacy

Perhaps surprisingly, the conservative "Iron Lady," who died today, helped to bring needle exchange to Britain.


Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013 Photo via

By Sarah Beller


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Margaret Thatcher, the first female British prime minister—and the longest serving British PM since 1827—passed away earlier today after suffering a stroke. She was 87. Thatcher made history by becoming the first woman to lead a major Western power in modern times, after famously stating, while serving as education secretary: ”I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” During her tenure, she led her country to victory in the Falklands War, smashed the power of Britain's trade unions, and helped guide the US and the Soviet Union through the last years of the cold war. Her conservative policies collectively came to be known as Thatcherism, and made her a deeply divisive figure in her own country. She was known to emphasize the imperative of the individual, deregulation of the markets and privatization of the state's assets. Many opponents remember her as "Thatcher the milk-snatcher," after she famously cut spending by ending universal free milk for elementary school children.

But the Iron Lady's policies sometimes defied expectations—including her drug policy. “I am not a consensus politician,” she often declared. “I am a conviction politician.” Today, advocates of radical drug policy reform, even those who oppose most of her other policies, largely acknowledge that the UK’s progressive standing in the drug policy debate dates back to Thatcher's time in charge (from 1979-1990). In response to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, Thatcher's government introduced evidence-based harm reduction approaches into British policy. Her administration launched a number of campaigns to promote safe sex. And in 1986, she started a landmark clean needle exchange program—despite vocal opposition that claimed it would promote drug use and encourage "debauchery." This bold move may have had lasting positive results: The current UK HIV/AIDS infection rate is .14%, compared to 43% in the US, where needle exchanges have been slow to catch on. Thatcher was known for sticking to her guns, once saying: "You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it."

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