At the heart of most debates on how the state should respond to the use of controlled drugs is an assumption that the threat of punishment affects levels of use
Roger Howard is the chief Executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission
Justice ministers have an array of impressive-looking levers available to them, which draw much of their attention. In theory a well-judged tweak in one direction, say increasing sentence lengths for knife crime, will have an effect on offending behaviour. But sometimes those impressive levers are not connected to anything useful.
This is particularly the case with drug policy. At the heart of most debates about how the state should respond to the use of controlled drugs is an assumption that the threat of punishment affects levels of drug use.
So a lot of time is spent comparing levels of drug use in countries with different legal responses to users. Rarely has a country’s internal statistics received as much international analysis and comment as Portugal’s since its decriminalisation of personal possession of drugs in 2001. Sweden’s more punitive regime is also often cited, particularly by those who link its laws to its relatively low rate of drug addiction.
But there is little evidence that laws about drug possession have much effect on levels of use.
In most Western nations, cannabis use increased by about 50 per cent between 1992 and 1998, regardless of each country’s relatively tough or tolerant approach. In the UK cannabis use has been steadily decreasing since 2000, despite its being bounced from class B to class C and back to class B in that time.
There is little evidence that long sentences have an impact on dealers either. The chances of getting caught are so low and the possible rewards so high, it barely registers for the major dealers.
Many of those lower down the chain are themselves addicted and desperate; the threat of extra years in prison is trivial compared with the need to get a fix. Despite this Britain gives substantially longer prison sentences for supply offences than most other Western countries.
But how we treat drug-dependent offenders still matters greatly. Contact with the law is an opportunity for drug users to be helped towards recovery.
Ken Clarke is experienced enough to understand this and to refrain from wasting time and money on the drug sentencing levers. While he may have been defeated on his plan for reductions for guilty pleas, his approach to drug users has remained largely intact. The bill prioritises diverting offenders – especially young people – into treatment rather than into prison.
Yet while these intentions are right and cost effective, the systems and services needed to break the cycle of addiction and crime are often not in place. Indeed, some are at risk of being removed.
Recovery from profound addiction can take several years and include frequent relapses. A justice system that doesn’t allow for this is setting many up to fail and lose self-belief before they have been given the chance to succeed.
There is still squeamishness about many evidence-based policies, like prescribing substitute heroin, which can keep some addicts alive and away from crime for long enough to recover. Even the use of methadone is coming under attack, despite the good evidence that it can help improve the health of users and reduce crime.
Compared with other Western countries, the UK has unusually high levels of drug dependency. Gradually the government is recognising that the way it can tackle this is through supporting recovery, not punishing addiction. The justice bill is another part of this process, but many of the most important parts are still unresolved.
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