Our drugs policy should be based on what works as our present policy is not working

By David May

Having sent in Freedom of Information requests on the two reports on drugs and legal highs, it is excellent news that the Tories have now allowed the release of the reports which they had previously blocked. It is clear from one of the reports that there is no link between tough penalties and level of drug use in a country. The Lib Dem minister Norman Baker who has called for the release of the report, has commented that treating drug use as a health matter would be much more effective, as shown in Portugal, and in my view the present policy is not working and we should base our policy on evidence of what works and not on prejudice. I believe that we now need to look again at our policy and looking very closely at what seems to be the successful policy adopted in Portugal.

It is evident that in the 1990s Portugal was struggling with a heroin epidemic of almost epic proportions as one person in every 100 was a heroin addict. Not everyone agreed in Portugal agreed with the change in the approach that was adopted to try and end the problem. In fact, many on the right wing of politics were appalled when prosecutions for people using drugs were ended. They didn’t like the idea that addiction would be treated as a health issue, rather than a criminal one, that addicts would be given treatment and healthcare to help them overcome their addiction. Those voices have been silenced now. Fifteen years later, and the number of people hooked on heroin has been halved, and there have been good results in terms of Aids infection, hepatitis infection and the like. Back in the 1990s “we feared that Portugal could turn into a paradise for drug users”, says Dr Jaoa Goulao, Portugal’s national co-ordinator on drugs and drug addiction. Thanks to the policy, that didn’t happen, he says.

On the subject of legal highs I am delighted to see that this report has also been published and more especially that the government is now going to consider legislation that bans the sale of all psychoactive substances, although exempting alcohol and tobacco. I back the Lib Dem minister Norman Baker who has commented “from today we will start looking into the feasibility of a blanket ban such as they do in Ireland, on new psychoactive substances across the whole of the UK, clamping down on the suppliers and head shops rather than the users.” In my view the sooner these substances are banned the better as legal highs have caused fatalities and is a very significant problem for not only Montrose but across Angus and also in our country as a whole.

The remainder is from the BBC web site

There is “no obvious relationship” between tough laws and levels of drug use, a government report has suggested.

The research compared the UK with countries like Portugal, where possession of small amounts of drugs no longer carries criminal sanctions.

Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker said the findings should prompt the end of “mindless rhetoric” on drugs with a new focus on treatment.

The government said it had “no intention” of decriminalising drugs.

Let’s look at what works rather than presuming locking people up is the answer”

After examining a range of approaches, from zero-tolerance to decriminalisation, the research concluded that drug use is influenced by factors “more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone.”

However, the report found there had been a “considerable” improvement in the health of drug users in Portugal since the country made drug possession a health issue rather than a criminal one in 2001.

The Home Office said these outcomes cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone and the UK government had “absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs.”

Mr Baker said treating drug use as a health matter would be much more effective in minimising harm.

The divisions within the coalition could not be more sharply exposed.

The official Home Office position is that its drug strategy is working.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister with responsibility for drugs, says “radical” change is needed.

Mr Baker’s claims have been fuelled by his department’s own report, which finds no link between how tough a country is on drugs and how many people use them.

It’s an important finding, but the study also makes clear that drug policy is highly complex – approaches which may work abroad can’t necessarily be implanted into the UK.

The Home Office barely mentioned the report in its press release, focusing instead on plans to change the law on legal highs.

Mr Baker’s intervention has ensured the report takes centre stage.

“Let’s look at what works rather than presuming locking people up is the answer,” Mr Baker said.

“People are treated as a number, they’re given a fine, they’re given a caution, they’re put in prison and none of that changes their drug habit.

“If we’re interested in changing people’s behaviour then we need to look at it from a health point of view.”

Earlier this year Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged to abolish prison sentences for the possession of drugs for personal use.

Mr Clegg challenged David Cameron to look at issues such as decriminalisation, despite the prime minister previously rejecting calls for a Royal Commission to consider the issue.

A man smokes drugs with police officers in the background
Danny Kushlick, the founder of the group Transform, which has been campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs in the UK for almost 20 years, said the report was an important step.

He added: “For the first time in over 40 years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use.

“Decriminalising the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.”

A separate Home Office report calls for a blanket ban on all brain-altering drugs in a bid to tackle legal highs.

Currently, when a legal high is made illegal, manufacturers are avoiding the law by tweaking the chemical compound and creating a new substance.

The government is going to consider legislation introduced in Ireland four years ago that bans the sale of all “psychoactive” substances but exempts some, such as alcohol and tobacco.

Mr Baker said: “From today we will start looking into the feasibility of a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances across the whole of the UK, clamping down on the suppliers and head shops rather than the users.

“This approach had a dramatic impact on the availability of legal highs when introduced in Ireland, but we must ensure it would work here too.”

Drug laws in some parts of the world have been relaxed in recent years.

Last year, Uruguay became the first country in the world to make it legal to grow, sell and consume marijuana.

From the start of this year, Colorado became the first US state to allow stores to sell cannabis for recreational purposes.

From: David May

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