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.

38 Responses to “On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them”

  1. Thomas Helgeson

    RT @leftfootfwd: On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  2. HouseOfTwitsLab

    RT @leftfootfwd On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  3. House Of Twits

    RT @leftfootfwd On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  4. Liza Harding

    RT @leftfootfwd On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  5. The Dragon Fairy

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  6. oblomovitis

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  7. Jonathan Taylor

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them //bit.ly/iXNCbh

  8. Sam Jole

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  9. Merna BELLEVILLE

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: Such statements are typical of the utter… //bit.ly/lGGptl

  10. Antony

    I agree with this post and signed up to the Release campaign as someone who has a good level of knowledge about the micro and macro factors influencing drug use. This has come from having worked with both recreational and problematic drug users and reading copious amounts of research around substance misuse. It isn’t a good ethical policy as it doesn’t do any good for the individual.

    If you were to suggest that a drug user who steals to fund his drug dependency should be let off because he has a drug dependency – I would disagree! There has to be consequences for actions in society. But, correct me if I am wrong – that’s not what your suggesting? Your simply suggesting if someone choose to use a drug in the privacy of their own home, causing no harm to anyone that they not be criminalised for doing so? I agree.

    I would rather the Police’s time be spend to criminalise dealers or drug users who commit offences while intoxicated, but be criminalised and have serve appropriate penalties for the dealing or offence they commit.

    I also agree that the education, treatment and support services for people that make the decision to use drugs need to be consistent and continue to be funded.

    It seems there is a post code lottery for education, support services and what they offer.

    Indeed there is a post code lottery in treatment services too in terms of what services offer and to which ‘type’ of service user (e.g. problematic, recreational, occasional, experimental drug users) to service users. It very much depends on the decision of commissioners and what they decide to fund in the service users area.

    A x

  11. Dan Gardner

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  12. Dr Hemp

    RT @leftfootfwd: On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them //t.co/kIPszhr

  13. Dan Gardner

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  14. Joel Kveton

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  15. Paul Ireland

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them //t.co/LNo0zYm #betterdruglaws #Legalise #warondrugs #Law

  16. Matthew Woodbridge

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  17. John Rentoul

    "Let’s not pretend decriminalisation is a credible or moral policy." Oh. That's not what Left Foot Forward says. //bit.ly/kH9rwG

  18. Deepak Minhas

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  19. Robert

    Salt well that says it all

  20. George McLean

    A simple, well-argued OP – and I say that as someone whose sole intoxicant-of-choice is alcohol. I especially like the thought that no-one would become a heroin addict because heroin was decriminalised. Given the government’s (standard and unthinking) response to your letter, Michael, what’s the next move?

  21. Dave Citizen

    Looking at other ‘evidence’, alcohol causes quite a bit of damage and expense to society and individuals. Granted, very few call for alcohol to go down the illegal drugs route but it’s hardly an advert for the benefits of legalisation. Improving our culture must surely be important in reducing drug problems, legal and illegal.

  22. 13eastie

    “Insanity” is an odd choice of word to band around when discussing this topic.

    A visit to an acute psychiatric ward would be instructive, and would demonstrate very quickly to you the link between drug abuse and serious psychotic illness. In schizophrenia patients, sustained misuse of cannabis and/or amphetamines prior to becoming ill is a frighteningly common background feature to a condition that usually causes life-long distress and loss of function with massive cost to the individual, family and society.

    You propose that potential drug abusers be provided with better information on the dangers. You don’t explain why this should not be done while retaining the laws we have currently.

    If you don’t think the law can act as a deterrent, why do so many backpackers spend so long making sure their luggage has been thoroughly hoovered out before they check in at Bangkok airport?

    If, as you suggest, health considerations are foremost in the mind of the drug user, how ought we to suppose the public health message could be supported by paradoxical decriminalisation?

    Would you suggest putting more tobacco posters up in schools, while reverting to allowing newsagents to sell cigarettes to sixth-formers?

  23. George McLean

    @3. Dave Citizen

    I agree that policy needs to be evidence-based, and the experience of prohibition-affected USA and decriminalised Portugal are useful, as I understand the evidence (OK – through Peter Wilby’s article in the Grauniad last week) – namely, that making an intoxicant illegal is no guarantee of reducing the harmful societal effects of it. But come on, experts – help me out here with some of those, y’know, facts!

  24. Zenaida Hartog

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells …: Illegal drugs, like all substances (inclu… //bit.ly/kkdMHI

  25. Jim

    @13eastie why should the problems caused to a, relatively, small number of addicts bother us in the face of the devastating effects of alcohol and tobacco on so many more? If addicts were registered and their health monitored by their gps, such problems could be minimised. Globally millions of lives are ruined and billions are spent to satisfy the self-righteous certitude of a relatively small number of people that “something needs to be done”. Little do they realise how many people they are killing, how many lives are ruined unnecessarily and much money is spent to do it. It’s evil to be so stupid IMHO.

  26. Darryl Bickler

    Government should do what the law tells them as well.

  27. mr. Sensible

    Dave, I think I heard somewhere that wine, in moderation can be good for you, even though I say that as someone who doesn’t drink.

    13eastie for once I completely agree with you. More treatment? Yes. More education and health campaigns? Yes. But decriminalization? Never, for the reasons you give.

    I heard on a news program last week people who suggested that they were saved by being caught.

    And so I think the notion put across in this article and in that letter is completely ridiculous.

  28. Rodolfo CA

    On #drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //t.co/ucHf7cr via @leftfootfwd / #sinosquedaelsaco

  29. TJ

    “If you don’t think the law can act as a deterrent, why do so many backpackers spend so long making sure their luggage has been thoroughly hoovered out before they check in at Bangkok airport?”

    Um, that’s exactly the point – the law WASN’T a deterrent – it didn’t stop them using drugs, and it didn’t stop them from being sold drugs. It just potentially criminalises people who are pretty minor actors in the scheme of things. The drugs barons continue to earn more money than many developing countries, all of which goes untaxed because it’s outside of the law, while countries around the world spend billions fighting a war which is blatantly being lost. This money could arguably be better spent on other priorities.

  30. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them: //bit.ly/lGlZXV writes Dr Michael Shiner

  31. Rory

    Mr sensible – why do you feel that it is justified to use the criminal justice system to impose upon people that use drugs if they dont want to be (your phrase) saved?

    How very authoritarian of you…

  32. Stacey Smith

    On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them. //tinyurl.com/6xjt7rm

  33. Gerard Newham

    RT @StaceInspire: On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them. //tinyurl.com/6xjt7rm

  34. Lenny

    RT @papakelt: RT @StaceInspire: On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them. //tinyurl.com/6xjt7rm

  35. Billy P

    Cameron’s government spends millions and millions on the war against drugs and only a small percentage of the drugs imported into this country are siezed by the police. FREE THE WEED!!!!!!!!

  36. CSSDP

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  37. Matthijs P

    Note the UK gov's rationale for criminalization of drugs. //bit.ly/jaxvMa What about alcohol? Tobacco? Gambling? Cars? Adultery? Etc.

  38. The government’s drug policy favours dogma over harm reduction | Left Foot Forward

    […] On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells them – Dr Michael Shiner, June 5th […]

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