The government’s drug policy: If it’s broken don’t fix it

High profile celebrities join former world leaders in campaigning for a reason and evidenced based debate on drug policy reform writes Dominic Browne.

Injecting drugs

The charity Release have published an open letter to the prime minister – signed by leading QC’s, three former chief constables, academics, politicians and celebrities including Sir Richard Branson and Sting – calling on the government to undertake a review of “the effectiveness of current drug policies”.

If the evidence demonstrates “the failure of the current position” the signatories call “for the decriminalisation of drug possession”.

This comes after a new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of politicians and former world leaders, states that the war on drugs has failed.

The BBC writes that the Commission’s report argues that “anti-drug policy has failed by fuelling organised crime costing taxpayers millions of dollars and causing thousands of deaths”.

The report cites UN estimates that opiate use increased 35% worldwide from 1998 to 2008, cocaine 27%, and cannabis 8.5%.

The letter from Release (pdf) states:

“This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In the past forty years use of illicit drugs in the UK has grown rapidly. It is clear that the present system of applying the criminal law to the personal use and possession of drugs has failed in its aim. Conversely, the harms caused by pursuing this approach to drug use have been significant. In the last year alone nearly 80,000 people in the UK were found guilty or cautioned for possession of an illegal drug – most were young, black or poor. This policy is costly for taxpayers and damaging for communities. Criminalising people who use drugs leads to greater social exclusion and stigmatisation making it much more difficult for them to gain employment and to play a productive role in society. It creates a society full of wasted resources.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalised the possession of all drugs and, despite sensationalist predictions to the contrary, this has led to a decrease in the number of young people using illicit drugs, an overall reduction in the number of people using drugs problematically, fewer drug related deaths, and an increase in people accessing treatment voluntarily, things we would all like to see happen in the UK..

Left Foot Forward have previously reported on the evidence based case against the current drugs policy. Matt Owen wrote last year that:

“The UK’s ‘War on Drugs’ has been resoundingly lost. It’s only demonstrable results have been the criminalisation of thousands of users who are badly in  need of better medical help, and the financial ascension of global crime syndicates.”

Owen cites this detailed study on the counter-productive nature of current drugs policy.

Also last year, Left Foot Forward’s Mark Thompson interviewed David Nutt, the adviser who was sacked by the government for claiming ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. Mr Nutt said:

“We need to have a re-think and go to a science based policy. At the moment, a bit of it is science based, a bit of it is moral based and a bit of it politically based and it just confuses people.”

Mr Nutt was defiant after being sacked saying the government would “have to accept” that his scientific view is “correct”. However despite the evidence mounting against them, the government show no signs of changing course. A Home Office spokesman said there were no plans to liberalise drug laws. Missing the point by a country mile, they said:

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

The real issue is how to limit this harm and destruction as much as possible. An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that the current policies have failed. It is the duty of a responsible government to start debating alternatives.

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