Not Saussure

March 8, 2007

Drugs laws ‘not fit for purpose’

Filed under: UK — notsaussure @ 10:34 pm

Possibly not news to many of us, of course, but it’s always good to see the truth recognised.

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) produced a report (pdf), the result of two years’ deliberation by a commission under the chairmanship of Professor Anthony King; the press release summarises its recommendations thus:

  • Addiction to drugs and other substances should be treated as a chronic health condition and a social problem, not simply a crime or a cause of crime
  • A radical rethink to drugs policy is needed ahead of the Government’s review of the National Drug Strategy in 2008
  • Drugs policy should be consistent and comprehensive, treating currently illegal drugs alongside alcohol, tobacco, solvents and over-the-counter and prescription drugs
  • The Misuse of Drugs Act should be repealed and replaced with a Misuse of Substances Act
  • The primary aim of policy should be to reduce harm
  • The lead in drugs policy should move from the Home Office to the Department for Communities and Local Government

I’ve not yet had a chance to do more than scan the report’s Executive Summary; the report itself is a not-insubstantial piece of work, some 335 pages long, so I can hardly blame Iain Duncan-Smith and David Blunkett, who were on the Today programme this morning disagreeing with it, for not having studied it in detail, either.

However, I must take issue with the contention, advanced by both of them and particularly by Mr Duncan-Smith, that, as he puts it in The Telegraph,

It focuses on the failed policy of harm reduction while ignoring mounting evidence that drug addicts can be successfully treated and rescued from their addictions so that they are able to lead normal lives.

I don’t quite understand the reference to ‘the failed policy of harm reduction’; the point of the document is, I think, that the policy we’ve been following at least since the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971 hasn’t worked too well, so they want to recommend a different approach.

That aside, though, he’s clearly not even read the Executive Summary. If he had, he’d have seen they devote two whole chapters to the subject of treatment, how to ensure it’s more effective and how to make it more readily accessible  to addicts. Quite rightly, they criticise the present arrangements whereby — in many parts of the country, at least — treatment for addiction is far more readily available to those addicts who’ve been convicted of crimes (quite serious ones, usually; a drug treatment programme is normally a last chance before prison, and if you fail to comply with it, then off to prison you go) than for users who want to get off drugs but have so far not been convicted of burglary to fund their habits.

According to the report (p 173),

Currently the National Treatment Agency’s declared objective for ‘ordinary’ users seeking substitute prescribing through the NHS is a waiting time of less than three weeks and this is not always achieved. The Drug Interventions Programme, in contrast, is expected to give offenders substitute medication within five working days. Preventing non-offending drug users from being able to access treatment quickly and effectively runs the risk of them developing more severe addiction and being obliged to commit crimes in order to finance their habit. In this way an over-emphasis on existing offenders could unintentionally encourage an increase in new offenders. In addition, giving priority to offenders creates a rather straightforward incentive to offend. In a survey conducted by Turning Point in 2004, 30 per cent of the respondents said they had committed crime to gain access to drugs treatment and 41 per cent had considered it. This was most prevalent in non-urban areas where the treatment infrastructure is less well developed.

I, for one, would far rather have a system where drug users are obtaining their drugs legally, under medical supervision, as part of a programme that seeks to encourage them to come off drugs but which also recognises that not everyone wants to, or at least not at the moment, and it’s better to supply them with the drugs they need, while helping them with their other problems — employment and housing, in particular — and so to lead a more normal life, rather than one that encourages them repeatedly to burgle other people’s houses to pay organised crime for their drugs.

The harm reduction of which the report talks includes the harm drug users cause to themselves but the harm that criminalisation causes to society as a whole. It’s well worth remembering that easily around half of the work of most Crown Courts is drugs-related, and most of that is to do with crimes committed to fund habits rather than straightforward possession and dealing.

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