Politicians often say we must arrest, imprison or, in some countries, even execute people who use or supply drugs to keep them off our streets, and young people safe. But as a doctor, I know from long experience that whether young people choose to take drugs or not comes down to a complicated mixture of reasons.
Among others, these include peer pressure, state of mind, what’s currently fashionable, whether they enjoy the experience - even a desire to take risks, or rebel by sampling 'forbidden fruits'. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, harsh drug laws don't reduce drug use. And the evidence for this - including research by the UK Government - is clear. That, of course, strikes at the heart of our punishment based approach to drugs. But worse still, here are 7 ways the Drug War actually harms young people in the UK, and around the world:
Threatens young people's health by increasing drug dangers
Some young people will take drugs. And any resulting problems are made worse by criminalising them. The drugs they take are of unknown strength, often cut with even more dangerous substances. And anyone can buy them. Ever hear of a drug dealer asking for ID? In some parts of the world, young people can’t even get the treatments they need for drug problems.
Puts children in the line of fire by creating violent drug gangs
Are young people threatened by shoot outs between brewers, pub and off-licence owners? No, but they were during alcohol prohibition in America. Until alcohol was regulated. The same is true of illegal drugs now. Handing the market to criminals means young people from Brixton to Bogota to Baltimore get caught in their crossfire. Or are directly involved. 5000 children a year in Mexico leave school to become foot-soldiers in the drug wars.
Leads to the trafficking and enslavement of children
It’s not just Afghanistan, Colombia and Burma where the illegal drug market leads to forced child labour to smuggle or grow drug crops. According to the NSPCC, of all the trafficked children in the UK, 58% were being exploited for criminal activity, with Vietnamese children in particular being forced to grow cannabis.
Ruins young people's lives with criminal records
Youth unemployment rates are terrible - now imagine trying to get a job if you are one of the 80,000 people in England and Wales convicted or cautioned for possession of drugs every year? A drugs conviction can be far more harmful to a young person than the drugs. Repeatedly stop-searching young black kids in particular for drugs is also alienating and harmful to communities young people grow up in.
Destroys children's families by locking up parents
Mass imprisonment for drug offences, or treating every drug user as an unfit parent, means countless children grow up without the love of their mother or father, often scarring them for life. In the UK, a child in government care is 7 times more likely to misuse alcohol or drugs; 50 times more likely to end up in prison; and 60 times more likely to end up homeless.
Makes youngsters who take drugs scared to seek help
Young people are frightened to ask for help for themselves or others, because criminalising them means they fear arrest, shame or even the wrath of their families. So every year young people die or damage their mental or physical health unnecessarily.
Prevents effective drug education, putting all children at risk
Ideological “just say no” drugs education doesn’t work, nor does criminalising young people to “send them a message”. Research shows honest, broad-based campaigns to teach children to resist impulsive behaviour in general are needed. And to keep young people who do take drugs alive? They need practical ‘harm reduction’ advice to minimise the risks - like the crush, dab, wait campaign - something Anne-Marie Cockburn wishes had been around before her daughter died.
And perhaps the most important reason of all? Because it doesn't have to be this way.
Ireland is now planning to follow Portugal, which decriminalised all drug users 15 years ago, and put the money into health care. Use didn’t go up, far fewer people now die of overdoses, HIV infections from sharing needles fell from over 1000 a year, to double digits. Similarly, in a growing number of countries supply of cannabis - and even heroin through doctors' medical prescription - are now legally regulated, with positive results. By contrast, in the UK, young people's ecstasy use is the highest in years, their cocaine use is sharply up, and overall, we now have the highest levels of drug deaths on record.
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