David Cameron knows the drug laws aren't working; his failure to change them is simple cowardice
Let's play a game of make-believe. Pretend you're a Home Office minister. One of your European neighbours employs a radical public health policy and, 10 years later, has seen huge improvements in the measurements of all the relevant health outcomes. The evidence for the efficacy of that health policy is widespread; the British Medical Journal and World Health Organisation have both issued major pieces of research, along with one of the leading journals in the field, which say that in general the policy has positive effects. Further, the proposed policy is significantly cheaper than the existing one, and has the added bonus of giving more responsibility and freedom to individual citizens. What do you do?
Well, obviously, if the policy is the decriminalisation of drug use, then you reject it out of hand.
The AFP reported, back in last July, that Portugal has reported a 50 per cent drop in "problem" drug users in the decade since they decriminalised all drugs. Dr Joao Goulao, the president of the country's Institute of Drugs and Drug Addiction, says that "There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal," although he is quick to point out that other factors, including "treatment and risk reduction policies", have played their part as well as legalisation. Of course, as the AFP story notes, those treatment and risk policies are part of Portugal's health-based approach to drug use, and taken together the policies have led to a "spectacular" drop in infections like HIV and hepatitis among intravenous drug users, and a significant drop in crime. And a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction praised the Portuguese approach, saying it, unlike other drug policies, is or at least attempts to be "internally consistent… pragmatic and innovative… transparent, coherent and well-structured", and saying that its success in reducing use is a blow to the theory that "decriminalisation, or a less punitive approach, leads to increased use" of drugs.
I write a close variant of this piece about once every three months. Some new piece of research is published suggesting that drug prohibition laws do more harm than good, or some high-profile former politician or policeman or lawyer comes out saying that police resources are being wasted on an unwinnable war, or yet another triumphant statistic gets trumpeted out of Portugal. I've written about a major BMJ piece, backed by the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, which says "prohibition on production, supply, and use of certain drugs has not only failed to deliver its intended goals but has been counterproductive"; a WHO report saying "countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones", and a systematic review in the International Journal of Drug Policy last year which found that "increasing drug law enforcement is unlikely to reduce drug market violence. Instead, the existing evidence base suggests that gun violence and high homicide rates may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition and that disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence."
But every time, the Home Office deadbats with bland statement on the lines of: drugs are bad, mmmkay. This time it's: "We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities. Those caught in the cycle of dependency must be supported to live drug free lives, but giving people a green light to possess drugs through decriminalisation is clearly not the answer. Through the cross-government drug strategy, we are taking action through tough enforcement, both at home and abroad, alongside introducing a temporary control power and robust treatment programmes that lead people into drug free recovery.”
If you managed to read all the way through that, you'll notice it says nothing whatsoever about the evidence, despite my specifically asking for a response to the BMJ, WHO and IJDP studies and the Portugal experience. The Home Office, and the Government, is deliberately ignoring the reality of the drug laws' failure.
No one claims that decriminalisation, or rather a cleverly instituted, multi-layer regulation of drug policy as suggested by Transform, will be a magic bullet. But the evidence, at least all the evidence I'm aware of, suggests that it will improve matters, or at the very least not make them worse, if carried out intelligently. What's more, David Cameron knows this, or at least he knew this in 2005, when as a contender for the Conservative Party leadership he called for "alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma". He said: "Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades." Nick Clegg in 2002 also called for "decriminalising the use of certain substances" and "partially decriminalising the sale of cannabis", and "legalis[ing] the use of drugs for purposes other than medical or scientific ones", ie recreational use.
But, as we've seen, once politicians get in power they get scared. Like their predecessors, this Government is a bunch of political cowards.
Tom Chivers is the Telegraph's assistant comment editor. He writes on science, culture and anything that crosses his mind.
By Tom Chivers
Last updated: February 15th, 2012
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