Martin Barnes: The key question is how do we minimise harm from drugs

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The Independent Online

We at Drugscope do not support the legalisation of drugs but we appreciate the debate Richard Brunstrom is helping to generate. What we do support is a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Charles Clarke, when Home Secretary, promised there would such a review but the Government changed its mind and that has not happened.

We need to look at the best way of minimising the harm drugs can cause and that can mean looking at radical policy changes. But to be effective and to get public support and investment, change has to be incremental.

Proponents of legalisation are going for a massive leap into a policy area we can only speculate on. For it to happen, it is going to need such a paradigm shift, both politically and socially, and after that, is it really going to be effective in terms of reducing drugs-related harm?

Also, we still don't know what those who propose legalisation really want? Are we talking about drugs being controlled by private companies? Are we talking about availability in off-licenses or will GPs be handing them out? We believe there are serious ethical issues against GPs handing out substances designed to get their patients high, not improve their health. I feel Mr Brunstrom has picked and mixed from various reports and statements and put them together to support his argument, for example he mentions the Royal Society of Arts who were quite critical of the Misuse of Drugs Act but they did not call for legalisation.

While we may disagree with Mr Brunstrom we would not deride his report because it is compelling, but in terms of it addressing the issues and challenges we face today, I'm not convinced.

One of the big issues still facing us is the effectiveness of drug treatment. The Government has made unprecedented investment in treatment but there are still things to be done in retaining people in treatment and the effectiveness of the treatment we offer.

There needs to be greater emphasis on tackling some of the social factors that can lead to problematic drug use, things such as truancy at school, difficulties in the home and poor social housing.

We call on the Government to review the Misuse of Drugs Act as Charles Clarke promised when he was Home Secretary.

Unfortunately, I don't believe this will happen. I don't think the Prime Minister wants it. He has said he wants cannabis to be reclassified as Class B and he did state in his conference speech there would be no decriminalisation of drugs. That is surprising because, at the moment, there is no great pressure on him to do that. It implies that when it comes to enforcement and penalties, he will take quite a strong line.

The author is chief executive of Drugscope