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Moving the drugs debate forward

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Solving the problems of drugs in our society requires moving beyond the tired dichotomy of prohibition and legalisation. Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope, makes his case

Today it is rare to hear a politician in the UK refer to a war on drugs. The phrase is dated, clichéd and, if there ever was a war, we have lost. A watershed report by the influential Home Affairs Select Committee in the UK, published in 2002, concluded: ‘If there is a single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement have failed.’

Few can claim that the drug policy of previous years has been a success. In the early 1970s there were a few thousand heroin addicts in the UK, today there are over a quarter of a million ‘problem drug users.’ Around 4 million people take illegal drugs every year; HIV infection among injecting drug users is rising; an estimated 300,000 children have a parent who is a problem drug user.

Pragmatism, not legalisation

Accepting that we can never eradicate drug use and the harms it causes is not to condone drug use, need not be a cause for despair, and does not lead inevitably to supporting the case for legalisation. But a more mature, calm and objective debate about drug policy is needed, something more sophisticated and pragmatic than the tired old debate about prohibition versus legalisation.

Supporters of legalisation have achieved success in sparking debate and ensuring that thinking out loud about radical reform is no longer entirely taboo, although the majority of politicians still tread carefully for fear of appearing soft on drugs and upsetting sections of the tabloid press. That said, many of the arguments for legalisation do not stand up to scrutiny. DrugScope does not support legalisation because we do not believe that the case for it is proven. We are deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of treating powerful psycho-active substances like cocaine and heroin as consumer commodities, and it seems inevitable that legalisation would lead to increases in drug use and dependency.

Radical changes

There is now a growing consensus that we need a new approach to drug policy. Incremental step-by-step reform, grounded in the best available research, can mean radical and even controversial changes. DrugScope supports, for example, prescribing heroin, which has been shown to reduce crime and dependency in countries such as Switzerland. We support the piloting of drug consumption rooms and have questioned the heavy-handed use of criminal law against people in possession of small amounts of cannabis.

The UK Government has been criticised for introducing headline-making measures so as to appear tough on crime, including a new presumption of an intention to supply where someone is found in possession of amounts of drugs below defined thresholds. Indications are that ministers are considering thresholds as low as five tablets for ecstasy and five grams for cannabis. However, the Government has also invested record amounts in drug treatment and introduced measures to enable drug-using offenders to be treated in the community rather than be sent to prison. And it is not all bad news – drug use among young people has fallen, as have public concerns about drug related crime in their communities.

The possibility of progress

Without, hopefully, being too naïve about the realties of adopting progressive drugs policies, the traditional ‘tougher than thou’ discourse between the main political parties may be changing. The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002 and has refused to distance himself from the Committee’s recommendations, which included downgrading the classification of ecstasy. He has said "we need to get away from entrenched positions and try to reduce the harm that drugs do both to users and society at large”. In response to a recent report calling for the introduction of drug consumption rooms in the UK there was surprise that the Conservative Party, rather than attacking the proposal, said that it should be given consideration, a position which gives the idea room to breathe.

The Government has started to review its current ten-year Drugs Strategy, which comes to an end in 2008. Whilst there is no ‘silver bullet’ that will alone substantially reduce drug related harm, opportunities to move the debate forward are opening up. Let’s hope the opportunity is not wasted.