It’s time we had an honest conversation about drugs

Reform advocates say current laws put power and money in the hands of crime bosses.
Reform advocates say current laws put power and money in the hands of crime bosses.

By Kate Kennedy – News Editor

It was recently revealed that a Home Office report published on the 30th October 2014 was suppressed by the government. The evidence based survey gave the damning conclusion that there is no evidence to suggest that tougher enforcement on the levels of personal possession leads to less drug use.

This unpalatable evidence goes against decades of political and public opinion. After years of the same political platitudes concerning drug use, we now have the evidence that shows that our current drug laws do not work. It is time that we stop speaking in hushed tones at the mention of a drug law reform and open up the (however incontinent) space for an honest dialogue.

Statistics on the government website show that 2955 deaths from drugs (legal and illegal) in England and Wales in 2013. These figures show an increase from previous years with a 19 and 23 percent increase in drug related deaths in males and females respectively.

The statistics also show how paracetamol was one of the three drugs that contributed most significantly to an increase in male drug related deaths. The other two were heroin and benzodiazepines. Two out of three of these drugs are legal. Statistics like these give us reason to pause. The evidence is telling: tougher drug laws do not decrease overall levels of harm. What’s more, drugs that are routinely produced by the pharmaceutical industry are actually contributing to more drug related deaths than illegal ones.

Resistance to the decriminalisation of drugs has at its origins a pervasive fear that has been carefully maintained over many decades by the UK government. They argue that softer drug laws would lead to higher levels of harm and addiction and that prohibition successfully discourages drug use.

In response to the recent Home Office report, David Cameron said the following: “I don’t believe in decriminalising drugs that are illegal today. I’m a parent with three children; I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe.”

The British public seem to echo this line of reasoning. A Mori survey conducted in 2013 asked 946 British adults what they thought about the current UK drug laws. The majority (60%) thought that possession of illegal drugs should remain a criminal offence. However, two thirds also favoured a review of our current drug policies.

Many argue that decriminalising drugs would lead to an increase in their usage. If it became as easy to get a supply of heroin from a local dispensary as it is to get a pint of milk from the corner shop, then the number of heroin users would invariably increase. Replace heroin with a softer drug like cannabis and people would have even more reason to pick up a damaging drug habit. So the argument goes. But the fact of the matter is that this is simply not true.

In 2001 Portugal made the controversial decision to decriminalise all drugs. Thirteen years later and Portugal’s problematic drug use has significantly decreased, less time and resources are spent on drug related crime and drug use amongst children has also fallen. The fact that more addicts are in treatment is another statistic worth pointing out. When drugs are illegal we vilify addicts and call them criminals. Addiction is not a criminal problem, it is a health problem.

A lot of the danger associated with drug use is down to the fact that these substances are not controlled. Last year, 15 year old Oxford schoolgirl Martha Fernback died after taking MDMA that was 91% pure. Her mother, Anne-Marie Cockburn now campaigns for a change to UK drug policy. She says that decriminalisation would help to “safeguard our children and lead to a safer society for us all by putting doctors and pharmacists, not dealers, in control of drugs.”

Prohibition pushes drugs to the black market to be controlled and cut by unscrupulous and profit driven dealers. If drugs were decriminalised and regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, the control would be taken out of the dealer’s hands and harm reduction measures could be implemented.

There is evidence that cannabis is unsafe to take if you are a young teenager with a developing brain. And yet it is easier for a young teenager to buy cannabis than it is for them to buy alcohol. Decriminalisation and regulation could subject these substances to age requirements like we do with alcohol and tobacco.

Professor David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist and ex-advisor to the Department of Health thinks that it is time the government confronted the evidence and reformed the UK’s drug laws. He says: “We need a drug revolution. We need to break through the misinformation and champion the evidence, champion rationality.”

Whether you look to the local news headlines or to government statistics, the historical truth repeats itself: prohibition does not work.

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