Last week the Home Office published a report entitled ‘Drugs: International Comparators’ the main headline from which was that there is no obvious link between tough drug laws and the number of illegal drug users.
The report draws on evidence from eleven countries’ drug policies and operational responses to review their impacts and draw comparisons with the UK’s Drug Strategy. The following are areas of focus in the report: drug consumption rooms; heroin assisted treatment; dissuasion commissions; drug courts; prison-based treatment; prison-based harm reduction; new psychoactive substances; supply-side regulation of cannabis; and decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use.
Before proceeding to discuss the political response and ramifications of the report, I wish to briefly summarise the report’s findings in relation to those measures outlined above.
Canada, Switzerland and Denmark all operate drug consumption rooms, wherein drug users can bring illegally purchased drugs (most commonly heroin and cocaine) to consume under supervision. This is a response to widespread public drug use where people congregate in one area for this purpose. In spite of some effectiveness in a reduction of public nuisance, the report found that drug consumption rooms have been controversial and legally problematic, working best when instigated as a locally-led initiative to solve a local problem. The report also recognises that widespread public drug use is not currently apparent in the UK and as such this measure is unlikely to be appropriate.
Heroin assisted treatment involves the provision of medical-quality heroin to users and early evidence suggests that it may be effective in reducing drug use and retention in treatment programmes for those who did not respond to other forms of substitution treatment. A trial project is already underway at three sites in the UK.
Part of Portugal’s decriminalisation policy is the use of dissuasion commissions which sit as lay persons outside the criminal justice system to decide in cases of drug possession whether an administrative penalty or a treatment programme should be given. The process of referring to treatment programmes is something that already exists%2 within the UK’s criminal justice system.
Drug courts, prevalent in the USA, offer incentives to try and encourage users to complete treatment programmes, through a specialist range of penalties. Drug courts currently operate in the UK although they suffer a difference in sentencing options when compared to the regular court and as such create an unfair disparity in similar cases. The report states that there is a lack of evidence as to their effectiveness and there is no evidence that drug courts reduce reoffending rates in the UK.
Prison-based treatment programmes were thought to be effective in Japan and Denmark, whilst prison-based harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchanges in prisons, something that is currently prohibited in the UK, are evidently an effective way to reduce the instances of blood-borne viruses.
The supply of new psychoactive substances could receive the status of automatic illegality, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland, perhaps a more suitable way to stay ahead of the ever changing chemical composition of many ‘legal highs’.
The report suggests that we monitor the effectiveness of the supply-side regulation of cannabis which is occurring in the states of Colorado and Washington, and also in Uruguay. These policies legalise and regulate the production, supply and recreational use of cannabis to varying degrees. The immediate benefit of which is to disrupt organised crime which profits greatly from such markets.
With regard to decriminalisation the following extract is that which has drawn all of the headlines:
“The evidence from other countries show that levels of drug use are influenced by factors more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone.”
The implication being that harsh punishments for drug use does not automatically reduce the instances of drug use. The report did however say that the benefits seen in Portugal could not be directly linked to decriminalisation as there were also improvements in treatment and harm reduction which may have a causal relationship.
The political fallout from this report has seen the two sides of the Coalition Government fighting for position. Norman Baker MP a Liberal Democrat and, up until his resignation earlier today (4th November 2014), Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Chair of the Inter-Ministerial Group on Drugs has said the following:
“We've had what I would call mindless rhetoric over the last 40 years which has tended to say there is only one solution and anyone who offers any alternative must by definition be 'soft on drugs'.”
Whilst the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has responded by saying:
“Under this government drug use is falling and I think that's because we have followed an evidence-based approach. We have been focusing on education and prevention and treatment - that is the right approach to take.”
On the report:
“It doesn't draw specific conclusions. I don't think anyone can read that report and say it definitely justifies this approach or that approach.”
Of course he is right to point out that this report is far from sound empirical evidence upon which to overturn a policy on drugs which could not be further entrenched within the collective psyche of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives are tough on drugs and it would cause chaos within the party if that were to change.
However, to dismiss the report almost out of hand, and claim to be following an evidence-based approach leaves one in a state of dumbfounded disbelief. The war on drugs over the last 40 years has proven to be quite possibly the greatest boondoggle ever devised.
Conservative MP Michael Ellis, a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee has highlighted the Party’s objection to anything other than a tough approach to drugs, when he said in relation to the Liberal Democrats:
“Their frankly pro-drugs policy is dangerous and irresponsible.”
A shift in attitude is needed, and it has to be a gradual journey of education based on research and facts, whereby the public can be led towards a more treatment based, decriminalised approach to drug use. A situation where, if a report such as this is published, every politician fearful of public opinion does not feel the need to dismiss the evidence and retreat to a pre-existing and failing position on the subject.
The mass criminalisation of drug users is an enormous waste of time and money, and only serves to further marginalise those affected. A serious debate needs to happen on this issue, and each time the politicians dismiss anything other than a tough criminal drug policy, as absurd and dangerous they reinforce the perceived perception of the public and continue a phony war on drugs which can never be won by focusing the power of the law against the users of illegal drugs, at the expense of their health and prospects, and for the benefit of criminal organisations which profit from their lack of regulation.