Drugs policy isn’t keeping up with the times

We're not stifling the supply, nor are "tough" policies dissuading drug users

Share
Related Topics

If you are trying to judge if a policy is successful, the first question to ask is: “What does success look like?” But this question has been surprisingly absent from this week’s debates following the publication of the Select Committee report, and the objectives of policy are not clear from current government drug strategy documents.

When Labour came into power in 1997, it launched a 10-year drug strategy that had clearly stated objectives, and a commitment to review progress regularly. The measures of success were a reduction in the supply of drugs into and within the UK; a reduction in the level of illegal drug use, particularly by young people; and a reduction in drug-related harms such as overdose deaths, crime and HIV/Aids.

From this week’s noise, one statement that rang true came from the Lib Dem Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne. He said that while we need to be open to new ideas and reforms in a time of rapidly changing drug markets, we should also recognise that real progress has been made in recent years in reducing some of these problems. And it’s true, some progress has been made.

Cannabis

As a result of decades of careful implementation of public health programmes that offered advice, support and clean needles, the UK has one of the lowest rates of HIV in the world among drug users. A national drive to identify, refer and provide treatment to offenders with drug problems in the 1990s led to a drop in burglary, theft, and shoplifting rates. The Government estimates that 4.9 million crimes per year have been prevented by successfully treating addicted offenders.

While there has been some progress, is David Cameron really justified in saying there is no need for a review? We believe that he is not – a review is needed now, more than ever. The UK, and every other country in the world, has absolutely failed to control the supply of illegal drugs. This is a business that creates hundreds of billions of pounds of profits for organised crime. And despite decades of committed action by our law enforcement organisations, illegal drugs have never been so freely available to young people. As in all business, if there’s demand and profit to be made, there will be a supply.

To take the example of cannabis, the Government’s efforts have made things worse. For decades, various strains of cannabis were grown around the world and trafficked into European markets. While some strains were strong in their psychoactive content (skunk, for example), the most popular products such as weed were milder forms of the drug. Partly as a result of our supply-reduction strategies, the cannabis market has shifted significantly in recent years, with production much closer to home, and suppliers are competing to produce stronger forms of the drug.

This is why it is more common to find skunk on the UK market, and may explain why cannabis use has gone down, as consumers prefer not to use this stronger drug. So we have fewer users, but more of them are experiencing problems with very damaging and distressing psychoactive effects. One of the policies the Global Commission on Drugs has suggested is to bring in tighter regulation of the markets, which should help control the harmful supply of stronger drugs.

We are clearly not succeeding in stifling the supply of drugs, so how are we doing in deterring demand through arresting and punishing users? If we are “tough on drugs”, potential users will be scared off. Actually, no – the evidence all points in the opposite direction. Any attempt to marginalise and punish drug users does not stop people from using drugs, and only creates its own social and health problems, at great cost to the taxpayer. “Getting tough on drugs” may be a good sound bite, but it is political self-indulgence of the worst kind.

Prison

The Government has been watching and learning lessons from abroad. The US has been enthusiastically arresting and imprisoning millions of its (poor and ethnic minority) citizens for drug possession for 30 years now, and it still has the highest level of drug use of any large industrial country. Russia has explicitly pursued a policy of demonising, harassing and imprisoning drug users, which has had no effect on the level of use, but has led to shocking death rates among some of their poorest citizens, and an explosion of drug-related Aids cases that threaten to spread to Europe. Iran, China and 30 other countries threaten the death penalty for even minor drug offences, but have not been able to reduce drug use in even those tightly controlled societies.

So what is the answer? What should the Government do in the face of the clear failure of some of the previously favoured strategies, and a rapidly changing drug market that is more diverse, with many different sources of supply and patterns of use, and that shifts much quicker than our ability to respond? There really is no simple answer, but it is clear that we need to start treating this as a public health challenge and not an issue of crime and imprisonment.

For a government to react to this situation by claiming that everything is working is dangerously complacent, and is sweeping the real challenges under the carpet. What we are looking for is a willingness to learn and experiment, and create a carefully considered and balanced strategy that has the best chance of reducing the social, health and crime problems caused by drug markets. That’s why we were so pleased to see Nick Clegg’s comments yesterday – we do need leadership to break this taboo. A Royal Commission may or may not be the best way to organise a review but, whatever the process, let’s stop pretending that a 50-year-old strategy, and a 40-year old-law, are sufficient to manage a 21st-century drug market.

Mike Trace is the chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and a former UK drug tsar. Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower