Deborah Orr: An ingenious plan to remove drug users from under the criminal justice jackboot

What is so welcome is that the Commission's proposals are eminently do-able
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I do like a really good sort-out - piling into that messy cupboard, preferably armed with a few excitingly practical storage boxes and some satisfyingly suitable folders, and applying a little logic. Order out of chaos. Lovely.

In its report Drugs - Facing Facts, the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy has piled into the messy cupboard that is government drugs policy and come up with some ingenious suggestions as to how, when the Government's National Drugs Strategy comes up for review next year, it could be arranged in a more tidy and accessible manner.

The heartening news is that while the cupboard is indeed in much need of remedial attention, it contains very little that is of no use at all, and quite a lot that could work quite well if it was a bit more easy to access. Even better, there's not even a pressing need to make space for too big a load of New Stuff. A lot of the necessary bits and bobs are strewn about the place already, and only need some boldly marked new labels on some more elegantly fit-for-purpose box files.

Much of this is dictated by the nature of the exercise. The RSA Commission has done no new research. It has simply spent a couple of years studying the mass of material already available, and consulting "a range of experts in the drugs field". By definition, it has looked at the issue through the lens of its own remit to focus on society's most intractable problems, and find ways of reducing that intractability.

Rather neatly, it has first and foremost come up with an excellent way of tackling that supremely illogical anomaly whereby such substances as alcohol, tobacco, solvents, over-the-counter and prescription drugs are treated in an entirely different way to "illegal drugs", even though the challenges and the attractions they offer are pretty much the same.

We know what absurdities these largely historical differentiations can lead us to. Only this week, a 68-year-old woman, Patricia Tabram, was warned that her eccentric fondness for styling herself as a cooking-with-cannabis martyr, and the criminal convictions this has attracted, could trigger her eviction from her housing association bungalow. Conversely, we are now quite used to seeing those wealthy enough to afford it popping into rehab again and again because they are hopelessly addicted to "prescription drugs". The method of procurement may be legitimate, but the consequences of problematic use are just the same.

As for alcohol, its endless citation as a drug whose prohibition has been demonstrated as unworkable, and as a drug whose social costs are far higher than a whole range of illegal substances, can in itself become a barrier to, rather than a motor of, reasonable debate. Even a limited arena for discussion that does not involve someone piping up with "But what about booze then?" will add light instead of heat to many arguments.

The Commission advocates the creation of such a welcome space by the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and its replacement with a Misuse of Substances Act which would incorporate all those psychoactive products, including alcohol, that can be abused as well as used.

There's no point in minimising the symbolic power of the 1971 act. Ostensibly just a boring old list that classifies certain substances and defines the penalties attached to their possession and supply, it is viewed by many as the point at which drug use in Britain began to be treated primarily as a crime, intimately linked to the declaration of the "war on drugs", and firmly placed under the auspices of the Home Office. It is credited with bringing to an end what used to be known as "the British System", which allowed the prescription by doctors of heroin.

It's no coincidence, therefore, that the Commission's vision of how a future drugs policy may look specifically embraces such changes of emphasis and practice as a move away from a criminal justice approach to a harms-based approach, the diminishment of the Home Office's involvement through the establishment of the Department for Communities and Local Government as the lead policy-making government agency, and the reintroduction of the British Method, along with a range of other models, into general prescription policy.

To many, including dear old David Blunkett, who railed yesterday on the radio about the need to keep drug users under the criminal justice jackboot, presumably under the misapprehension that it was all working marvellously well, this all sounds scarily non-punitive. But, as the Commission points out, defining drug users by their criminality rather than their need has spawned bizarre results. Tragically, for example, a problematic drug user who goes to his doctor seeking help in getting off drugs is in many parts of the country, or at the GPs' surgeries that have exercised their right to opt out of providing drug treatment, unlikely to receive any, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, a non-problematic drug user with no wish whatsoever to curb her recreational use, but who has racked up a possession conviction, can find herself lavished with expensive mandatory treatment that is not likely to work because the patient is indifferent or hostile to it, and would have minimal benefit to anyone even if it did.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Blunkett is wrong to express fearfulness about the implications of a move away from the criminal justice approach (though it is important also to stress that the Commission is clear that "the fight against the supply of illegal drugs should not stop"). The RSA points out that the population is broadly speaking more sympathetic about drug use than the nation's institutions might convey. But in communities that are really damaged and blighted by drug use, attitudes are much more robust.

This is why it is important to emphasise that it is these areas, under the Commission's recommendation of an index of harm that would incorporate the physical, social and economic aspects, which would be the focus of the most help. Such suggestions as the move away from the Home Office to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the emphasis on hugely beefing up of the role of local Drug Action teams, are entirely concerned with improving delivery of services to the communities most in need.

Above all, what is so welcome is that the Commission's recommendations are eminently do-able. Wisely, its report does not press for legalisation in any but medical forms; on the contrary, it requests that we all become a bit less hung up on legalities and illegalities, and concentrate instead on "the key principles of rationality and consistency and the desire to minimise harm". This is a very tidy piece of work, and a welcome affirmation that the drugs policy cupboard is far from bare.