[h1]The true face of drug crime[/h1]
[FONT=arial,helvetica,sans-serif]When a user's quickest route to treatment is to get arrested, the need for new thinking is clear[/FONT]
[FONT=Geneva,Arial,sans-serif] Matthew Taylor
Wednesday October 17, 2007
[/FONT] The call by the chief constable of north Wales for all drugs to be legalised highlights a pressing issue for Gordon Brown: Britain's failing drugs policy. The 10-year strategy for illegal drugs laid out by Tony Blair in 1998 expires next April, and the Home Office has sent out a consultation paper to "communities, families, experts and current and ex drug users" - an opportunity to press for a more rational approach.
Illegal drugs are notoriously troublesome for policy makers, hedged about with contested statistics. One fact, though, has always seemed solid: drugs cause crime. According to the Home Office document Drug Strategy: Key Facts, drug-related crime accounted for 90% of the economic and social costs of class A drug use in 2003-04, costing the country £13.2bn.
Or did it? Recent research from Alex Stevens, of the University of Kent, suggests that a cornerstone of government thinking, the causal link between drug abuse and criminality, does not stand up - he says that Home Office calculations overestimate the importance of drug-related crime because they ignore the fact that a disproportionate number of drug users get arrested.
Stevens finds a worrying tendency in Home Office material to assume that drug use causes crime. When a user commits an offence, it is assumed that their drug habit is the reason: the popular image is of the crazed junkie scrabbling around in a jewellery box. Stevens shows that some drugs are associated with particular types of crime: heroin addicts are more likely to be caught shoplifting, for example. But he challenges the idea of an overall causal link.
Larger trends bear this out. In the past 10 years property crime has fallen by almost 50%, with particularly steep falls in domestic burglary. The government assumes that this can be explained by reductions in drug use. Yet use of heroin, cocaine and crack, the drugs supposed to be linked to property crime, is at historically high levels. In truth, the declining street value of goods such as TVs and DVD players provides a more powerful explanation.
The link between drugs and crime is more complex than policy accounts for. The desire to make money out of selling mobile phones or iPods does not rely on offenders being addicts.
Stevens feels that drug policy needs a true revolution: a return to the start. At one time the medical profession took the lead in developing and administering drugs policy in the UK. Since 1998, however, the lead role has been played by the Home Office and police. This skews the treatment system, bending it away from those who need its help.
At present, drug users who have committed a crime are required to receive treatment within five days; for non-offending drug users, the suggested maximum wait is three weeks. Perversely, the best route to quick treatment is to get caught shoplifting.
Gordon Brown has been talking tough on decriminalisation and reclassification. This may well be sound politics, but it obscures the problems faced by current strategy. The real issue is not how we treat drugs; it is how we treat users. Not recreational users, mostly enjoying themselves, but problematic users, their lives ruined by addiction. There are nearly half a million problematic users in Britain, many of them seriously underserved by their government.
The key recommendation of the RSA's drugs commission was to treat drugs not as a crime problem, but as a health one. This would not only mean that drugs policy focuses more heavily on clinical treatment. It would mean that the "wraparound" services - housing, education, employment, childcare, family support - would be made more readily available to drug users. There would be more emphasis on the welfare of individuals experiencing problems with drugs, and on the public health benefits of tackling drug-related problems such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
There does seem a willingness in government to look seriously at this alternative. The difficulty, as always, is how to communicate it to voters. Too often we assume tabloid-headline speak to voice public attitudes. In-depth studies show, however, that people understand the problems of a purely coercive approach. This is hardly surprising: many young adults have experienced recreational drug use, and new grandparents are children of the 60s. Labour ministers are working on the right lines. Now they must make the case with the British people for a more enlightened approach.
Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair