Drugs: a Criminal Matter or a Health Issue?

October 30, 2014, 3:55 PM UTC

A government report published this week has opened up once again the whole issue of Britain’s drug policy by implying that tough laws have little effect on whether or not people make use of drugs for recreational purposes. It’s also split the coalition government.

The Liberal Democrat minister in charge of drugs policy, Norman Baker, says the report proves that policy needs ‘radical’ change. But his Tory colleagues say the opposite: the policy is ‘working’. The official Home Office line is that the government has ‘absolutely no intention’ of decriminalising drugs. So what should Britain’s drug policy be?

The report examines the widely different drugs policies of thirteen countries from the zero-tolerant Japanese approach at one end to the more accommodating policy of Portugal, which treats the possession and personal use of drugs as essentially a health issue rather than a crime. The report concludes, among other things, that there is ‘no obvious relationship’ between tough laws that criminalise drug use and the actual level of use. It says that the factors that contribute to the use of drugs are ‘more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone’.

To Mr Baker and others this is a very significant conclusion. That’s because British drugs policy, going back to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, has been based on the belief that  drug use is harmful and should be made illegal in order to deter people from using drugs and so harming themselves. The report challenges that link between criminalisation and levels of use.

Danny Kushlik of the drugs charity, Transform, (which campaigns for the legalisation of drugs) said: ‘For the first time in over forty years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drugs laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use. It has also acknowledged that decriminalising the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.’

Mr Baker hopes the evidence of the report will help put an end to the ‘mindless rhetoric’ that he claims has characterised the debate on drugs policy ever since 1971. That rhetoric has been all about whether politicians are ‘tough’ or ‘soft’ on drugs and has led them, it’s claimed, to adopt policies which are tough-sounding rather than necessarily effective in reducing the harm which drugs inflict. Opponents of the 1971 Act have long claimed that it has had no effect on the incidence of drug use but making possession and recreational use a crime has fuelled a massive criminal industry worth £14 billion a year. It also wastes scarce police and criminal justice resources.

The aspect of the report to which Mr Baker wants us to pay most attention is the evidence from Portugal. There the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use has been decriminalised since 2001 and the result, according to the report, is that there has been a ‘considerable’ improvement in the health of drug users. The reason, he says, is that when people are caught with drugs, instead of being hauled in front of the courts, they are required to attend ‘dissuasion’ centres where they are taught about the dangers of drug use and offered help to wean themselves off the habit before they become addicted.

The conclusion Mr Baker draws is that ‘if we’re interested in changing people’s behaviour then we need to look at it from a health point of view’. His party leader, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, is already on the record as saying he wants the entire responsibility for drugs policy to be transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health. He also proposes to abolish prison sentences for the possession of drugs for personal use, including Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Mr Baker’s Tory colleagues have accused him of ‘political posturing’. They argue that the current policy is working and that the clear evidence for this is that drug use is ‘plummeting’. So why change a policy that is proving effective, they ask.

Mr Baker says that analysis is simply wrong. He claims the fall in use is due to wider societal factors such as the current generation of young people being more risk-averse than their predecessors were.

Opponents of the current policy have long argued that politicians of all parties have allowed themselves to be swayed by the politics of the issue rather than by what the evidence might suggest is the best policy. In particular, politicians have been accused of being too frightened of the public response (and especially from the populist media) to adopt any policy that could be slammed as being ‘soft’ even if the evidence suggested it would be more effective.

Defenders of the current policy of course deny this. They say it is evidence rather than fear of public opinion that determines their policy. But whatever the truth of the matter, there is also some evidence that public opinion may be shifting and that politicians need not fear so much of a political backlash if they start to advocate an alternative approach to reducing the harm that drugs inflict on individuals and on society as a whole.

So perhaps we are now ready for renewed debate on how we should tackle the drugs problem. The question then is: what is indeed the best policy? Should we go on making not just the selling but also the possession and use of drugs a criminal matter, or should we use the law only against the sellers and pushers, and regard the possession and personal use of drugs as something that should be treated as a health issue rather than a crime?

What’s your view? Let us know.