Addicted to ignorance on drug abuse

Let common sense prevail when – at last – the  Commons opens itself up to a debate on drugs

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The Independent Online

Few areas of public policy are as badly served by our political classes as that governing drug use. There is very little incentive for any politician even to suggest a rational approach to the problem. If the press doesn’t finish off your career, then your political opponents, usually hypocritically, will use the supposedly maverick suggestion as a golden opportunity to smear and discredit you. If you happen to be a progressive sort, you will be dubbed “high on tax and soft on drugs” or the like, quite often by people who are even on the left themselves – people who should know better and who, in reality, but very privately, most likely share the same outlook.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, and a few other brave parliamentarians are therefore to be congratulated on today securing the first Commons debate in decades about drugs. It will be interesting, and heartening, to see how many of our elected representatives are prepared to speak up on behalf of constituents who have been so wilfully misled about the war on drugs.

It is no great surprise that Theresa May’s Home Office has taken its time to publish the latest evidence on this “war”. Mrs May is too careful a politician to allow herself to be rushed over such a radioactive topic. So far as can be gleaned from a report that appears to have been suppressed, it suggests that there is no strong causal link between drugs consumption and the penalties for getting caught possessing, trading or using them. Well, we knew that. Like much of this kind of research, it accords with common sense and everyday experience.

We all know, most likely from direct personal experience, that the chances of being convicted of a drug offence are fairly slim, and so the scale of the punishment is correspondingly irrelevant. The chances of being apprehended, are, in turn, slim to nil. These substances, it hardly needs to be repeated, are lucrative to smuggle and addictive to their consumers, so it is no great surprise that the trade in them will be fairly resistant to the usual strictures of law and order. The profitability of the drugs trade is directly the result of its illicit nature. If it were liberalised the usual forces of competition would apply, and the drugs themselves could be more safely controlled and regulated to prevent adulteration and variations in strength, the causes of many an overdose. Like alcohol and tobacco, they would remain dangerous and addictive, but like those drugs, those that are presently illegal, or at least some of them, would be controlled sensibly.

The addictive nature of drugs – an obvious point – is also the reason why harsh criminal penalties are ineffective. When a user craves a fix and their addled mind becomes distorted by the very drug they seek, the reasoning that would usually make a severe sanction effective as a deterrent becomes distorted.

Which brings us to the most important failing of the many we have suffered over drugs: the failure to see drug use for what it is – a health issue rather than a criminal one. Addicts are as varied as non-addicts, and each needs their own treatment tailored to them to help them beat their habit or at least manage it. They do not need to be hit with a criminal record and a jail sentence, neither of which are recognised medical solutions. Again, as is a matter of common knowledge, a prison, with its thriving trade in illegal substances, is really the last place an addict should be sent. One day such obvious truths will be acknowledged. Until then, there will be more suppression of the hard truths about hard drugs.