Neither hard nor soft but “Smart on drugs”

The drug policy debate was re-energised last week by two events. A Home Office report, Drugs: International comparators, that was unambiguous in stating that there is no relationship between the harshness of a country’s enforcement of drug possession and levels of drug use and a House of Commons debate on drug policy that aired all the reasons why we should, at minimum, conduct “an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment” of the 40 year-old Misuse of Drugs Act, a significant step towards evidence-based policy. Poignantly both took place on 30th October, the day it would have been Martha Fernback’s 17th birthday had she not tragically died of an unwitting overdose of Ecstasy supplied by the dangerously unregulated criminal market.

Let me be clear from the start; I believe that our current drug policy is a hugely costly, counter-productive and harmful failure. We do not have control of the drugs market, the criminals do, and we should move to a government-led policy of control and regulation of all drugs as soon as possible. And it’s not just me; 71% of people polled by YouGov for the Sun do not think the war on drugs has been successful in reducing drug use and in an earlier poll 60% are in favour are in favour of trialling decriminalisation.

According to the Home Office illicit drugs supply creates £10.7 billion social and economic costs (probably an underestimate) every year with the Police spending about £1.5 billion (again an underestimate?) enforcing the Misuse of Drugs Act. That is a huge lost opportunity to tackle crimes that really affect citizens; murder, rape, robbery, burglary and anti-social behaviour. The inflated price of drugs under prohibition creates a very lucrative illicit market (up to £8 billion every year in the UK) that enriches criminals, facilitates corruption, encourages crime and fosters violence and disorder. Drug users are criminalised and ostracised, punished when they should be supported, and exposed to increased risk of death and diseases because all drugs are more dangerous when their production and supply are controlled by ruthless, avaricious criminals.

If these disastrous consequences had successfully reduced harmful drug use to negligible levels it might just be possible to argue (I wouldn’t) this is a price worth paying; but they haven’t. Drug use has increased dramatically. The so-called “War on Drugs”, in fact a “War on People”, particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged, is a pointless, damaging exercise.

The Home Office report is just the latest in a long procession of evidence that challenges the doctrine that law enforcement, prohibition, is the best way to minimise harms associated with drug use. Indeed decriminalisation doesn’t increase use; clearly other factors such as culture, social cohesion and support mechanisms are at work. But, despite that mounting evidence, the unhelpful intransigence of successive governments continues to block not just change, but the very idea of examining the evidence to consider whether change might be necessary.

Sadly, perhaps not surprisingly, David Cameron responded to the report and debate, by dismissing any thought of decriminalisation erroneously claiming that current policy is a success. The same David Cameron said in 2002 when a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee that “Drugs policy in this country has been failing for decades…I hope that our report will encourage fresh thinking and a new approach…to reduce the harm that drugs do both to users and society at large.”

As successive governments have refused to conduct impact assessments of drug law enforcement one can only conclude that they know that the results would contradict their tired dogma. Bob Ainsworth MP, when asked to support a cost benefit analysis of drug law reform, said: “Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?”

Many police officers are aware that their drug law enforcement efforts are futile. I would go further; those efforts are actually irresponsible in the sense of being an unjustifiable waste of scarce resources, particularly in a period of austerity. They are also counter-productive and often seen as wasteful, biased and even racist. Failed enforcement of an unjust law is likely to damage public confidence in the policy and be seen as a sad tale of promises unfulfilled. Current drug law enforcement simply cannot afford to continue as it is.

I’m not naïve about the prospects of a change sooner than later so I do know that the police face considerable difficulties in delivering effectiveness and efficiency within the constraints of the current law. What does help is the long tradition of discretion in law enforcement; adjusting priorities and shaping activities to deliver the higher goal of a safer society.

A vulnerable person, struggling to deal with the trauma of emotional, physical or sexual abuse by taking drugs need not be a threat to our safety or security. We can guide them to treatment rather than the courts, saving money and reducing crime as we do, and understand and help them to tackle their demons. Whether you do or don’t have a problem with your drug use the last thing you need is to be arrested and prosecuted.

As we wait for the inevitable change in policy the less time we spend on drug users the more we can spend tackling serious and organised criminality.

Maybe not all will agree the need to abandon failed prohibition and introduce control and regulation of all drugs, but at least I hope all will agree the need properly to assess the impact and cost effectiveness of our current drug policy and commit to creating an evidence-based policy.

Tom Lloyd QPM MA (Oxon)
Former Chief Constable
International Drug Policy Adviser

Cambridge, November 2014

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About tomclloyd

International Drug Policy Adviser and former UK Chief Constable
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