The current approach to drugs has gone to pot

Mike Morgan-Giles argues that British drugs policy is a serious failure of evidence-based policymaking, and that we can learn many lessons from overseas.

Reports earlier in the week indicated that deaths caused by drug misuse are now three times higher in the UK than the EU average.  Furthermore, this increased from 49 deaths per one million people in 2006 to 59 per one million in 2009, a 20 per cent rise.

In spite of drug use decreasing in recent years, hospital admissions from drug poisoning and for associated mental health reasons have actually increased.

But what we continue to see is an approach from senior politicians towards drug use that is completely at odds with the reality of the situation.

For example, in 2006, the science and technology select committee described the current drug classification system as arbitrary and unscientific.  However, there was no real determination from senior political figures to see any reforms through.

The current prime minister also changed his stance on drug reform after the opportunity to become Tory leader arose.  Back in 2002, he had been part of the home affairs select committee who proposed downgrading ecstasy and a initiating a focus on drug harm reduction.

The Home Office has been complicit in the failed approach for a number of years. This included the sacking of drugs expert Professor David Nutt in 2009 for speaking out against the government’s politicised, unscientific approach.

The previous government exacerbated this with decisions to ignore advice from their own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as did the current one by removing scientific experts from its panel. And just last weekend, the Department briefed out dodgy, politicised statistics on drug seizures to journalists.

This unsustainable and reactive model of prohibition actually perpetuates greater harm to drug users – and causes major problems to the people and environment in developing countries in places such as South America.

However, many experts are now beginning to call for a radical new approach to drugs policy.

Bob Ainsworth, the former minister for drugs called on them to be legalised recently, while Professor Nutt said after the new figures were released that “the old banning approach isn’t working”.

International figures, such as Kofi Annan, former US secretary of state George Schultz and former Presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Columbia have also come out in a recent report and argued that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed.

Currently, those suffering from drug addiction are left to fend for themselves or forced onto the prison conveyor belt. Addiction and misuse is really a health issue and only leads to crime when users are unable to properly look after themselves.

Furthermore, currently drug seizures by police and customs lead to variations in drug purity on the black market.  This results in a dangerous situation whereby users don’t know which chemicals are contained in the drugs they buy.

It’s like going to the chemist for your prescription and being given a random cocktail of substances from behind the counter.

Drug seizures also often result in prices of drugs increasing, as overall supply within the market drops. However, a leaked Number 10 Strategy Unit report from 2003 confirmed that higher prices from drug seizures could actually lead to increases in crime.

In fact, there are seemingly endless problems with the current approach. Clearly a change of stance is politically challenging, but it needs to be communicated that the current approach only makes the situation worse.

Whilst the path from the current situation to the goal of Annan and Ainsworth is long and arduous, smaller steps can be taken.

An important one, which Portugal and Russia have already made, is the decriminalisation of drug use, with a shift instead to harm reduction with the Department of Health leading the way. In Portugal, this approach has led to drug misuse halving in the past ten years.

Treatment is effective and wouldn’t cost a penny – indeed it would lead to huge savings in probation, prison, courts and police time, in addition to a reduction in acquisitive crime, prostitution, homelessness and further benefits to society.

Now is the time to start tackling drug misuse by focusing on the health issues rather than criminalising yet another generation of people.

See also:

UN World Drug Report offers more evidence global drug policy is behind the timesMatt Owen, June 28th 2011

Sentencing Bill: Drug users still need more practical helpRoger Howard, June 21st 2011

Lucas: Drug addiction should be a health issue not a criminal oneCaroline Lucas MP, June 16th 2011

On drugs policy, the government should do what the evidence tells themDr Michael Shiner, June 5th 2011

The government’s drug policy: If it’s broken don’t fix itDominic Browne, June 2nd 2011

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