[h1]All the billions spent to curb drug use have been in vain[/h1]
[FONT=arial,helvetica,sans-serif]I know from experience that policy initiatives have never had any effect on levels of use or on addicts themselves[/FONT]
[FONT=Geneva,Arial,sans-serif] David Rowntree
Tuesday August 21, 2007
[/FONT] Drug statistics can make depressing reading. According to a recent report, nearly 35% of the UK population has tried illegal drugs. That's nearly 19 million people. Of those about 330,000 are addicts, about as many people as the city of Leicester contains. The government's response is outlined in its drug strategy, which is due to be revised next year. But despite having spent billions on education, policing and enforcement, drug use has not changed, according to the UK drug policy commission report. In fact, there seems to be no evidence that any country's policy has had any lasting effect on the number of recreational or dependant drug users at all. Ever.
It's a baffling conclusion, especially as there seem to be some common-sense approaches that work well in other areas of life. For instance, it would appear reasonable that more education would help reduce drug use. If we explain the risks to children, it seems self-evident that fewer would go on to use drugs. I'm convinced having honest information about drugs is essential for everyone. But in terms of actually reducing use, education, whether in schools or elsewhere, has been a disaster.
Other approaches also seem like common sense. It seems logical that tougher penalties would reduce the number of users. If we could combine harsh penalties for use with a realistic chance of getting caught, it seems obvious that fewer people would take the risk. Again, the evidence shows that this dual approach, tried for decades around the world, simply doesn't work. In the US, a study of 94,000 schoolchildren found no significant difference between rates of drug use, regardless of the penalty and testing regime. At home and abroad, a widespread increase in the number and length of prison sentences has failed to stop huge increases in drug use.
So what can a drug strategy actually do? I think it's essential to look at dependent and non-dependent users separately and assess what it's possible to achieve. Most recreational users stop by the time they're 30. Though the headline figure is that 35% of the population have tried drugs, fewer than 10% have done so in the last year, and only about 0.6% become dependant. Most users seem to suffer no long-term ill effects, and since they are predominately young men, the risks involved might be part of the attraction. There is no evidence that legislative change makes any difference, but it does carry considerable political risk. More liberal laws open up the government to accusations of being soft on crime; more draconian laws risk accusations of pandering to the right, ignoring evidence and wasting time and money. Unless attitudes change, the best government may be able to do is present an honest message that drug taking is dangerous and not recommended. But if people decide to do it anyway, it should outline the risks and be clear about what to do if things go wrong.
The problem of dependent users seems equally baffling. Why do they continue using after losing their home, family, job, and even their limbs? Happily I can tell you, because I've been there. Many addicts think mood-altering chemicals affect them in a different way to normal people. Certainly when I first discovered alcohol, and later cocaine, the effect was almost religious in its intensity, and all my problems seemed to melt away. I didn't start using regularly until the 90s, but as my tolerance increased, I used more.
However, my experience of life when not on drink or drugs got progressively worse. The world became an increasingly hostile place, relationships got more difficult and an all-encompassing sense of dread and paranoia set in. Drink and drugs became progressively less effective in soothing those feelings. At some point, the drugs stopped working, but life without them had become impossible. It was a catch-22 situation where it was impossible to live without alcohol or drugs but impossible to continue using. I managed to get help before they destroyed my life, and these days I'm active in the recovery community. The key point is that all the way along, I thought my behaviour was normal and it was the rest of the world that had gone mad. I had no idea my experience was different to anyone else's because I had nothing to measure it against.
So if my experience is typical, and I think it probably is, many addicts aren't interested in treatment because they don't believe there's anything wrong with them. As with other kinds of mental illness, it's very difficult to make much progress without the cooperation of the patient. So while it is vital to provide treatment facilities for addicts who want them, it is equally vital to find ways of reducing the harm that addiction does to those who don't. Some of these facilities, such as needle exchanges, are quite common, and have proved effective in limiting the spread of HIV amongst users. More controversial are trials of prescribing heroin to dependant users for use under medical supervision. In Switzerland a similar experiment proved so successful in cutting health risks and crime that it is now part of the healthcare system there.
So what I'm hoping for in 2008 is a strategy based on research, education and harm reduction. Some evidence suggests that the proportion of people who may be at serious risk of becoming dependant could be as high as one in six. If so, taking drugs is really like playing Russian roulette. Most people will get away with it, but for some it will mean their death. And just like Russian roulette, you won't know which group you're in until it's too late. David Rowntree is Blur's drummer, and is studying to be a barrister