It's a waste of money being hard on soft-drug users

People are in jail for what half of Britain's youngsters do on a Saturday night with no serious ill-effects
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The Independent Online
I had a letter recently from Hope Humphreys who is aghast at what has happened to her son. Most other parents listening to her story can imagine her sense of shock. How did her bright Manchester University student son fetch up in Strangeways prison with a two-and-a-half-year sentence? Police looking for someone else broke into his student house and found some cannabis and ecstasy. Ecstasy, amazingly, is a Class A drug with a recommended sentence of three to five years for possession with intent to supply. He was no more a "supplier" than the friend who bought ecstasy for Leah Betts - but like thousands of others, down he went.

A recent Home Office British Crime Survey found that nearly half of all young people use drugs at some time. This could have been any one of them. "Our son is mixing with murderers, heroin addicts, violent and vicious men", Hope Humphreys says. "He is frightened much of the time. He is treated as an evil drug dealer and our nightmare goes on." Neither an addict nor a dealer, what good will his time in prison have done anyone? It has turned his mother into a campaigner against our drug laws - not necessarily for legalisation, but for a saner policy.

Plainly few British politicians, except for one or two bravely unambitious mavericks, are likely to propose legalisation of soft drugs. In 1989 MORI found only 14 per cent of the public in favour of legalising the smoking of cannabis. By this year, that had risen to 21 per cent. So public opinion may be moving, but it remains firmly against it. It may be sensible, but for the time being it is a somewhat academic argument. After all, it need not take full legalisation to ensure that people like Hope Humphreys' son do not waste their time and our money doing two years in jail for what half the young people in the country do on a Saturday night with no serious ill-effect on society in general.

Today happens to be United Nations Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and the UN has produced a vast report on the huge worldwide growth in the drugs trade and drug-related crime. It shows the relatively ineffective fight against it, with only some 10-15 per cent of heroin intercepted. It notes the general impression of "an impasse in the drug policy field". In just five years, 1988-1993, the US drug law enforcement bill rose from $4.7bn to $12.3bn, during which time the street price of heroin and cocaine dropped sharply, indicating an increasing supply - running faster and faster yet slipping backwards. The report also covers drug addiction treatments that work best, noting the decline in drug-related crime where there are good treatment and methadone support programmes.

There is no doubt now that drug addiction fuels crime like a can of petrol on the urban bonfire. A Home Office report recently suggested that one in five thefts is caused by drug addicts, costing the victims some pounds 864m in loss of property. A Department of Health study of 1,100 drug misusers found they had committed 70,000 crimes in the previous three months. (That is a horrifying 64 crimes each in just three months). Another Home Office report found that one fifth of those arrested for all crimes tested positive for heroin. Never mind the harm hard drugs do their users, they do immeasurable damage to the whole social fabric.

The police, customs, Interpol and the rest do their weak best to stem the tide of hard drugs washing onto our streets. But when we do catch drug addict criminals, we do very little to stop them reoffending over and over again. There is a pessimistic myth that nothing much can be done - treatment is a waste of time, they are incurable. Yet all the evidence is that investment in drug treatment programmes pays for itself many times over in crime reduction. After all, with so much crime committed by addicts, even a modest success rate can make a huge dent in the crime figures.

Consider these depressing facts, which show how much we waste the money spent on drug-related crime: two thirds of public expenditure on drugs is spent on enforcing the law and only one third on treatment and prevention. Of the 94,000 drug offenders caught by police, 90 per cent were for possession of cannabis, the least socially damaging drug. Some 4,200 heroin offenders were caught - not very many to give intensive treatment to. The Penal Affairs Consortium produced a devastating report this month on the criminal justice system's failure to deal effectively with drugs. They pointed out that an offender might cost pounds 36,000 to process through court and jail yet despite all that money, never get near a treatment programme to help prevent him reoffending.

How much more effectively could money be targeted on those who cause most harm? Once hard drug users enter the criminal justice system, there is a unique chance to change their lives and reduce their reoffending. Yet many get no treatment in prison. Downview, one of the few prisons with a good programme developed by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, shows that virtually all who go through their programme remained drug-free, proven by random drug-testing.

US research found that every dollar spent on drug treatment programmes saved $7 in crime costs. What's more, crime reduction during the treatment itself, even if all the addicts had relapsed straight afterwards, paid for the cost of the programme. In Brighton a pilot scheme with drug workers stationed in courts and police stations to divert people away from prison and into treatment programmes found that curing one single heavy-using heroin addict saved in property stolen the combined cost of three workers on the scheme.

Courts have the power to use drug rehabilitation programmes, but very rarely do. In any case, most programmes are heavily over-subscribed, with 10 or more weeks waiting lists for people who cannot wait. Even detoxification centres for emergency short-term treatment are turning away more people than they treat.

So we waste money catching and processing thousands of harmless soft drug users, even locking up some, like Hope Humphreys' son. And at the same time we miss the chance to seize hold of serious addicts and treat them quickly in programmes that really do reduce the crimes they commit. It would not require a noisy head-on confrontation with popular prejudice for Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to reorder priorities radically, save money from pointless activity and redirect it to the treatments inside and outside prison that really work.