The Misuse of Drugs Act was signed in 1971 when there were estimated to be 1,300 people who had a problem with drugs. After 46 years of coming down hard on users and jailing people for possession that number has risen to 380,000. Ronnie Cowan MP and FRSA argues it is time for a new approach.
Junkies, crack-heads, stoners. They want to steal your TV to pay for their next fix. If you turn your back they will have your wallet. You should view them with suspicion and discount them at the first opportunity, because it saves time as you will do it eventually; these people are itinerant criminals and drug use is an extension of their chosen life styles. Except a growing body of opinion suggests that this is not the case with many experts in drug addiction and crime prevention are coming to the same conclusion: this is a health issue not a criminal one. According to a 2014 survey only 10% of recreational drug users have an addiction problem and only some of those addicts commit crimes.
Given the public perception, driven by the tendencies of some media outlets, it would be easy to believe that we have been in a fight against drugs since time began. And that it is a just and noble battle. That some sort of underclass living off benefits and squandering them on drugs should be locked up to protect us from them. The truth is somewhat different.
Less than a hundred years ago these same drugs were available, in many forms, across the counter. Pharmacies would sell many products made from derivatives of heroin or cocaine. Cough mixtures contained opiates and department stores sold heroin tins. We, or rather a few individuals representing our society, decided that we needed to ban these substances and criminalise the users. And so the war on drugs began.
The National Treatment Agency estimates that the combined cost of substance abuse to society is £15.4 billion. The cost in human life and the suffering of addicts, friends and families can never be quantified. As the war continues, there are more addicts, more cost, more pain and no signs that things will improve.
Once you have started a war that you are never going to win, ending it becomes increasingly difficult. The onus is on you to justify the time, the cost (in human lives, misery and tax payer’s money) and why you started it in the first place. If you can't do that then the only option seems to be to plough on. Doggedly proclaiming that you were right all along and steadfastly refusing to listen to alternative strategies aimed at resolving the same issue. And that is where we are now in the war on drugs. Rather like the generals of the First World War ordering tens of thousands of conscripts over the top in a futile show of strength, we cannot see a way to get out that justifies the losses or the sacrifice made, so we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
When we started the war on drugs we moulded people's perception and created the intolerant attitude that we have today. When we made a range of drugs illegal we handed over the production and distribution of them to the criminal fraternity. In doing this we scored the most spectacular of own goals. Drug production, distribution and supply now represent a multi-billion pound business, wholly owned and managed by criminals, who do not pay tax, who do not provide care for their clients and who continue to develop their own market place. It is ruthless, predatory and when threatened, violent. And it is no coincidence that the areas of the UK with the highest levels of social deprivation are the areas with the highest numbers of drug related deaths. Today, according to the Prison Reform Trust, one in 10 people in custody are there because of a drug related offence and, as we have seen in recent years, some of our prisons have serious problems with synthetic drugs or ‘spice’. Those with the least access to money and lawyers, those who are the less socially mobile will always be more vulnerable.
Yet we still manage to get it right sometimes. When it was identified that HIV was spreading because injecting drug users were sharing needles, the city of Glasgow was one of the first to hand out clean needles and as a result fewer than 2% of Glasgow’s injectors became HIV positive. According to figures cited by Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, in New York, where they did not hand out needles, the HIV positive rate amongst injectors was 50%. Glasgow is now at the forefront in providing premises where people can inject safely without fear of prosecution. Some countries have pursued alternative policies that involve the decriminalisation of drug possession. Argentina, Estonia, Australia and Portugal have all taken a health-centred approach to the issue. In Portugal they have decriminalised drug use. When the penalties for personal possession were removed drug addiction declined. Rather than criminalising people they were passed on to a ‘dissuasion committee’ consisting of members of the health, social work and law professions. Those considered to be addicts or problematic users are forwarded to treatment and rehabilitation programmes. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, within 10 years of the implementation of these policies, the number of drug addicts in Portugal has halved. If the UK achieved the same success, Buchanan Institute estimates that the financial saving would be around £7.7 billion.
While we continue to persecute and punish, we create despair and disharmony. The alternative, which would require a monumental change of attitude as much as anything, can heal and rebuild. The burden on the NHS and law enforcement would reduce. The money saved could be invested in treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction services. The real criminals would be driven out of business and communities would no longer live in fear. To start the process we first have to stop labelling people as junkies, crack-heads and stoners.
Ronnie Cowan is MP for Inverclyde and vice-chair of APPG on drugs policy reform.
He would like to acknowledge The Buchanan Institute report Putting health first: A new approach to UK Drug Policy, the Royal Society for Public Heath report Taking a New Line on Drugs and the books Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari and God Cop, Bad War by Neil Woods and the support provided by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).