Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one

Green Party leader Caroline Lucas sets out her calls for a new approach to dealing with drugs, and says drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal one.

Caroline Lucas MP (Green, Brighton Pavilion) is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales; she is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drugs Policy Reform

Earlier this week, I was invited to speak to a meeting of NHS practitioners in Brighton about the government’s drugs policy. One of my priorities as a local MP is to tackle our city’s very sad reputation as the drugs death capital of the UK – and as I set out in my speech, I believe that a very different approach is needed for addressing the problem than the one which David Cameron’s own former speech writer has described as a “self defeating $100bn-a-year war” on drugs.

Drugs policy remains one of the most controversial issues facing politicians. There is a widespread acceptance that current policy isn’t working, but while many political leaders have admitted as much – including Mr Cameron himself before becoming prime minister – they seem to lose the will to act once in a position of power. As a result, we do not get the reasonable, mature and informed debate we need.

Yet there is growing agreement across the scientific and political communities, in the police and the legal professions, that the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working – and that we need to move towards an evidence-based, public health approach to addiction.

Just this month, the Global Commission on Drugs Policy called for a complete rethink of the way we deal with drugs in a report backed by figures such as Kofi Annan and Richard Branson. Here at home, Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has argued that decriminalising illicit use could “drastically reduce crime and improve health”, while the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, points to a:

“…growing body of comparative evidence suggesting that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences.”

We all know that drug misuse and drug-related crime destroys individuals, families and our communities. Over half the 85,000 people in UK prisons are thought to have serious drug problems. Rates of cannabis use and binge drinking by young people here are amongst the highest in Europe. I believe that all of these harms could be significantly reduced if the government acknowledged the fact that a repressive prohibition-based approach is not working.

Successive British governments have put their faith, blindly, in the idea that the illegality of drugs is in itself a deterrent. And our emphasis on criminalising and punishing drug use means that policy success is measured in terms of the number and size of drugs seizures, how many people are arrested and the severity of prison sentences – not in terms of reduced harms to individuals or society or levels of organised crime.

Shockingly, there has been no cost benefit assessment of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK, or any attempt to compare its effectiveness in reducing the societal, economic or health costs of drug misuse with an alternative approach based on treating drug addiction as a health issue – not a criminal one. In this age of austerity, when we are told that every penny of public spending must be justified, nobody is checking whether the war on drugs is value for money or money down the drain.

Any debate on drug policy needs to reflect the facts. Not only what is happening here in Britain but also in countries like Portugal, where the number of people taking heroin has halved since its use was decriminalised. In Switzerland a series of new policies based on public health rather than legality led to a sharp decline in heroin demand and crime.

And a comparison between Norway, which has a very liberal regime yet similar levels of drug use to Sweden, where strict controls are in place, suggests there is very little correlation between levels of punishment and levels of drug taking.

The UK government’s new strategy talks of:

“…a fundamentally different approach to tackling drugs and entirely new ambition to reduce drug use and dependence.”

Yet all the evidence suggests that underneath the rebranding, this is a rehash of the same old tired policy, which is simply not up to the job of reducing drugs-related harms.

In her introduction to last year’s drugs strategy document, home secretary Theresa May asserts that “drug use in the UK remains too high”, which begs the question “what is an acceptable level of drug use?” The government’s answer is simple – none. Hence its focus on full abstinence and eradication – and a narrative which measures success only in these terms.

My concern is that the obsession with abstinence may impact on the availability of treatment provision, especially when coupled with cuts to public spending. Allowing space for people to relapse is also critical; for those who want to end drug dependence, relapse is often part of the journey to eventual recovery, so denying this is likely to be counterproductive.

Furthermore, a shift in focus towards complete drug-free recovery runs the risk that individuals with a dependency will disengage prematurely from the treatment system, resulting in an increase in illicit use.

If the government is really serious about taking a “fundamentally different approach” to the drugs crisis, it should start by recognising that reducing drug related harms is a public health concern – and as such, should be subject to the same kinds of effectiveness and efficiency standards as other areas of public health.

So responsibility for drugs policy should sit with the Department of Health, not the Home Office. Only then can we start treating people dependent on drugs as patients rather than criminals – and start building on evidence-based methods of harm reduction, rather than hiding behind ideology and political convenience.

One key area where the current government’s approach does differ from previous manifestations is the emphasis on local empowerment. In this respect, its strategy echoes the Global Commission on Drugs Policy’s recommendation that local administrations be allowed to develop their own approaches – if there are grounds to believe these will deliver improved health or social outcomes.

The commission specifically uses the example of ‘decriminalisation of use’ policies, as having the potential to generate learning that in turn influence national and international strategies.

Here in Brighton and Hove, we understand more than most the consequences of a drugs policy that fails our citizens and our communities. And having seen the commitment locally to evidence-based treatment and support programmes, I believe we are also well placed to start shaping an alternative approach that actually works.

I am not alone in my thinking. The Chief Superintendent of Brighton and Hove, Graham Bartlett, has joined my calls for a potential decriminalisation of use and a new public health approach, saying:

“My personal view is that whilst production, supply and trafficking are and should remain crimes, the use of drugs is not well addressed through punitive measures.”

So in the spirit of the government’s Big Society and the new ‘localism’, I am organising a high level roundtable in Brighton bringing together medical experts, the police and other key local stakeholders to help develop this alternative approach. Over the coming months, I will be working closely with key agencies, healthcare professionals and community groups in Brighton and Hove to explore ways for us to make a change for the better.

Ultimately, whether at the national or the local level, this is about recognising the reality that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed – and thinking about dealing with drugs differently. It won’t be easy. A new approach, based on treating drug addiction as a health issue not a criminal one, will represent a significant shift in thinking.

Any changes should be brought in slowly and carefully, with each phase properly assessed before moving on to the next. But if we get this right, we can reduce drug-related deaths in our cities, cut down on drug-related crimes on our streets, and make our communities safer.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.