On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them

Dr Michael Shiner, Assistant Director of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology, on the need for the government to stop burying its head in the sand and reform drugs policy.

Dr Michael Shiner is the Assistant Director of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology and author of Drug Use and Social Change: The Distortion of History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; see here for more information)

Release – the drugs, law and human rights charity – issued an open letter to the prime minister last Thursday calling for a swift and transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies. Should the review “demonstrate the failure of the current position”, the letter urged “the immediate decriminalisation of drug possession”.

As one of the signatories of the letter I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the government’s curt dismissal of the request, on the basis that:

“Drugs are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities.”

Such statements are typical of the utter denial, not to say insanity, that surrounds the government’s approach to drugs policy – doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

Illegal drugs, like all substances (including salt, for example) are potentially harmful, so why would anyone suggest that their possession should be decriminalised? Well the answer is pretty simple – criminalising drugs doesn’t work and doesn’t protect people from harm.

The government’s own figures show that around two-in-five young adults have used drugs and close to a million have done so in the last month. If even a fraction of these people were prosecuted to the full extent of the law the criminal justice system would grind to halt, so what happens is that some people (disproportionately young, black and poor) get prosecuted and some don’t.

It’s sometimes said that decriminalisation is a dangerous step into the unknown, but this isn’t so.

What’s happened in Portugal since 2001 shows that abolishing criminal sanctions does not automatically lead to increases in drug use and can actually promote positive outcomes including a fall in the number of people using drugs problematically, fewer drug related deaths and increases in people accessing treatment voluntarily.

When the legal classification of cannabis was reduced in Britain from B to C in 2004, moreover, levels of cannabis use continued to fall. It’s not that surprising if you think about it. The law doesn’t function as an effective deterrent because it doesn’t feature prominently in most people’s decisions about what to use and what not to use. Health considerations are much more important and provide part of the solution.

Accurate, targeted information about the risks associated with drug use promotes greater reflection and better decision-making. Think of how tobacco use has plummeted over the last 40 years as people have become more aware of the dangers or ask yourself if you’d fancy developing a heroin addiction so long as you weren’t going to be sent to prison for it. Decriminalising possession would free up huge resources that can be better spent on education, treatment and support services.

Critics have described the call for a review and possible decriminalisation as ‘naive’. It is, perhaps, naive to expect the government to sacrifice short term political gain, to recognise the damage its policies are causing, and to do what the evidence tells them they should.

But let’s not pretend criminalisation is a credible or moral policy. It really is time for better laws.

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