Government should listen to its advisers on drugs policy

There is an interesting story in today's Independent, flagged in Left Foot Forward's Politics Summary, which reports that a group of government-appointed drug experts are to call for a nationwide network of "shooting galleries" to provide injectable heroin for drug addicts following successful trials. The current Government is on record many times insisting that their policies will be based as far as possible on evidence. In the area of drugs policy, however, there have been two recent occasions when the government has gone against their own advisory body.

There is an interesting story in today’s Independent, flagged in Left Foot Forward’s Politics Summary, which reports that a group of government-appointed drug experts are to call for a nationwide network of “shooting galleries” to provide injectable heroin for drug addicts following successful trials. Here are a couple of snippets:

“The trial started three years ago and yielded benefits within months. Early results showed crimes committed by the addicts dropped from about 40 to six a month, after six months of treatment. A third of the addicts stopped using street heroin and the number of occasions when the rest “scored” dropped from every day to four to five times a month.

“The programme was modelled on one in Switzerland where introduction of injecting-clinics “medicalised” heroin use, removing its glamour and transforming it from an act of rebellion to an illness requiring treatment. Last year, Swiss voters backed the scheme in a referendum, proving it could be a vote-winner. Similar clinics have also been established in France, Germany and Canada …

“Professor John Strang, head of the National Addiction Centre said “It is ‘intensive care’ for drug addicts, more expensive than standard treatment but a third of the cost of sending them to prison at ¬£44,000 a year. And they become re-addicted on release. We are dealing with a profound drug hunger and trying to medicalise it to break the link with street heroin use and crime.”

The current Government is on record many times insisting that their policies will be based as far as possible on evidence. In the area of drugs policy, however, there have been two recent occasions when the government has gone against their own advisory body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The first was back in January 2009 when the Government reclassified cannabis as a “Class B” drug (from “Class C”) in contravention of advice from the ACMD. Not long after, the ACMD released a report recommending that ecstacy be moved out of the most dangerous “Class A” category and the Government ignored this advice too.

There is now movement on an international level towards a more progressive approach to drugs policy. As well as the countries cited in the snippet above who use “shooting galleries,” Portugal decriminalised all drugs eight years ago and the effect has been positive. Mexico and Colombia have also both recently started to make moves in this direction.

This latest report is an opportunity for the Government to reconsider their approach to drugs policy. If their own experts are telling them that there is strong evidence that “shooting galleries” will reduce harm, crime, and costs then this should not just be dismissed.

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