Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The new government's drug policy is not "fundamentally different thinking" but more of the same

Today, the government has launched its first Official Drug Strategy (PDF). In it, they promise "a fundamentally different approach to tackling drugs." However, barring some minor alterations, the basic statist presumptions at the heart of failed drug policies still prevail.

In her foreword, Home Secretary Theresa May insists;
Our level of ambition is high, and includes stopping people taking drugs in the first place and bearing down relentlessly on those involved in the drugs trade. The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, in May 2012, will re-establish the link between the police and the communities they serve. They will be directly accountable to the public for reducing drug-related crime within their force area. The new National Crime Agency will lead the fight against organised crime and enhance the security of our borders. The patterns of drug use are also changing, particularly with the emergence of so called ‘legal highs’. We will respond more quickly and flexibly to any new and emerging threats and harms and ensure that criminals manufacturing and trading in drugs feel the full force of the law.
This is nothing that we haven't heard before.

It was talk of "bearing down relentlessly," and being "tough," that saw the previous government surrender to tabloid pressure and reverse its downgrading of cannibis. This despite the fact that four years of the policy resulted in a fall in usage of the drug amongst all age groups, a drop in strength of most strains of the drug, and a decline in the number of arrests for using the drug.
This same demand for "the full force of the law" also saw May's predecessor Alan Johnson sack advisor David Nutt. His crime being to point out the fallacies of government drugs policy.
Amongst the last government's failings was its attitude to "legal highs," and unfortunately it is a failure that this "fundamentally different approach" is bound to repeat. In April, the government banned mephedrone, reclassifying it as a class B drug, despite warnings that this was an extremely unwise decision. After the fact, clubbers continue to use the drug despite the ban, and we have learned that the deaths which catalysed the decision had nothing to do with the drug.

And yet;
The Government is determined to address the issue of so called ‘legal highs’. We know that these substances can pose a serious threat, especially to the health of young people. We need a swift and effective response and are therefore redesigning the legal framework through the development of temporary class drug orders so we can take immediate action. We will improve the forensic analytical capability for new psychoactive substances and will establish an effective forensic early warning system.

UKBA are undertaking enforcement action at the border to target and intercept consignments of these new substances. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is currently developing approaches to identify importers, distributors and sellers of ‘legal highs’ and disrupt their ventures, including activity against websites. We are also introducing technology at the borders to identify these new types of drugs.
But more prohibition, when we know that prohibition doesn't work (PDF), isn't a "fundamentally different approach." It is plain idiocy.

Also part of the plans, is the suggestion that those on drugs "could see addicts lose benefits if they do not co-operate" with the government's "drugs-free recovery" plans. At the same time, "it is not yet clear how much funding will be allocated" to the extremely succesful methadone-replacement programmes.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not suggesting that you're average unemployed junkie should be allowed to get some of his weekly smack quota subsidised by the state, rather it's the idea that such a subsidy is an incentive to carry on is simply ridiculous.

Let's be clear for a second, being a smackhead requires commitment to the cause, and the smack is what makes the commitment strong. When someones body is screaming out for a hit, it's unlikely that taking away that person's dole is going to make the body stop screaming and the compulsion to satisfy it less.

It's all well and good to talk about a "carrot and stick" approach when you're dealing with fully-functioning rational human beings. However, a dependent heroin addict who's going cold turkey isn't exactly the most rational of beings, especially when there is a much more appealing option available than a carrot.
And, of course, if they can't get their hit using dole money, desperation can lead them to steal for their fix.

This isn't to say that the new proposals are without positives;
Building recovery in communities - this Government will work with people who want to take the necessary steps to tackle their dependency on drugs and alcohol, and will offer a route out of dependence by putting the goal of recovery at the heart of all that we do. We will build on the huge investment that has been made in treatment to ensure more people are tackling their dependency and recovering fully. Approximately 400,000 benefit claimants (around 8% of all working age benefit claimants) in England are dependent on drugs or alcohol and generate benefit expenditure costs of approximately £1.6 billion per year2. If these individuals are supported to recover and contribute to society, the change could be huge.
If this rhetoric is matched with action, and pursued with the same zeal that punitive measures no doubt will be, then it is to be welcomed. It is unfortunate that any positive outcomes will continue to be drowned out by the disastrous toll of the drug war.

Except for some far-right politicians, very few domestic political factions are agitating for a repeal of the 2001 law. And while there is a widespread perception that bureaucratic changes need to be made to Portugal's decriminalization framework to make it more efficient and effective, there is no real debate about whether drugs should once again be criminalized. More significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents—from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for "drug tourists"—has occurred.

The political consensus in favor of decriminalization is unsurprising in light of the relevant empirical data. Those data indicate that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.


The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.
You can download the Cato Institute white paper, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, in PDF format here.