Treating criminals like addicts

Unable to hold the line on drugs, politicians get the health service to do the job of the courts.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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When it comes to drugs, MPs are dopes.

They seem to think that the more they debate the question of illegal drugs, and the more they come up with snazzy new policy recommendations, the closer they get to solving some kind of problem. Instead, they find themselves increasingly incapable of saying or doing anything.

The latest chapter in the British drugs debate was published this week, in the form of the Third Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, titled ‘The government’s drugs policy: is it working?’ (1) Well, you hardly need a select committee to answer that one. Everybody knows that the British government’s drugs policy – like every other government’s drugs policy – isn’t working; and as you might expect, the select committee felt the need to do more than just say ‘No’. Hence, a raft of new recommendations about how to make a drugs policy work.

It has been widely reported that the select committee report calls for a greater liberalisation of Britain’s drug law, and that the old fuddy-duddies in the government won’t go for it. But reading the actual report, liberalisation is the one recommendation that is missing. The select committee has thrown its hands up in the air about the possibility of law enforcement, and pitched itself at new, therapeutic approaches to drugs regulation.

The report’s starting point is not to question whether there should be a law against drug-taking, but to recognise that the law just doesn’t work. This is summed up in the report’s introduction, by a pretty definitive quote from Mr Mike Trace, former deputy UK anti-drugs coordinator and current chair of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction. Trace reported back on the Monitoring Centre’s work looking into the correlation between the prevalence of drug use and the relative harshness of a country’s control regime, and found the following:

‘”We could find no link across 15 member states between the robustness of their policies and the level of prevalence. There are some countries with high prevalence, harsh policies, some countries with low prevalence, harsh policies, other countries with liberal policies and low prevalence. There is no link, there is no conceivable link.”’

It was not a permissive approach to drug-taking, but a pragmatic recognition of the authorities’ inability to enforce the law, that prompted the select committee’s conclusion that ‘policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail’.

What about the select committee’s proposal to reclassify cannabis (from Class B to Class C) and ecstasy (from Class A to Class B)? This has also been held up as evidence of a more liberal approach, along with the recommendation that ‘drugs policy should primarily be addressed to dealing with the 250,000 problematic drug users’. But these recommendations, too, are pragmatic; and they relate only to the enforcement of drugs policy, not to the spirit behind it.

The softer approach to cannabis and ecstasy relates to possession, not to supply – indicating no fundamental change of view in official attitudes towards these drugs. An obvious problem facing the authorities, particularly in relation to cannabis, is that it is so widely used, often among respectable middle-class professionals – and you can’t go around locking up people who in every other respect epitomise the best of Blair’s Britain. The select committee couldn’t say that, of course; it brings on Commander Brian Paddick of the Metropolitan Police in Lambeth to say it instead:

‘”My view is that there are a whole range of people who buy drugs, not just cannabis, but even cocaine and ecstasy, who buy those drugs with money that they have earned legitimately. They use a small amount of these drugs, a lot of them just at weekends. It has no adverse effect on the rest of the people they are with either in terms of the people that they socialise with or the wider community. They go back to work on Monday morning and are unaffected for the rest of the week.”’

So there you have it: cannabis criminals could be People Like Us. And if they don’t get pissed or smoke a lot, so much the better.

The select committee report makes much of the argument that tobacco and alcohol are just as bad as illegal drugs. ‘Legal drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, are responsible for far greater damage both to individual health and to the social fabric in general than illegal ones’, it states. It goes on to cite the pioneering work of the Welsh National Assembly, which has ‘formulated a strategy which covers the misuse of both illegal and legal drugs, and we believe that there is merit in this approach’.

Funnily enough, it does not strike me that the comparison between soft drugs and alcohol and tobacco will lead to the sale of dope over the counter, or the ability to smoke spliffs openly in pubs. As a consequence of this argument, we can expect no greater liberalisation on the drugs issue, and more tightening up of the regulations on alcohol and tobacco. Cheers.

In fact, the select committee’s approach to illegal drugs seems to be based on the government’s current approach to legal ones: namely, a relentless programme of anti-drugs education in schools, designed to instil aversion in the young. ‘We believe that all drugs education material should be based on the premise that any drug use can be harmful, and should be discouraged’, states the report. The committee believes in ‘the importance of educating all young people about the harmful effects of all drugs, legal and illegal’. It does, however, recommend that ‘the government conducts rigorous analysis of its drugs education and prevention work and only spends money on what works’.

This tacit call for ‘evidence-based’ anti-drugs education seems reasonable enough – until you consider that we already know that it doesn’t work. Anti-smoking education causes 10-year-olds to parrot ‘Urgh! You’re disgusting!’ at their relatives, but it doesn’t stop them smoking when they hit 13 – just as sex education doesn’t stop young people having sex, or alcohol education doesn’t prevent them from going on a bender. It seems that, having given up on the notion that it is possible to enforce behaviour through the law, the committee wants to push a moral message through education. Why? Just to make it clear that there is no liberalisation going on in society’s attitude to drugs.

What about the quarter of a million ‘problematic’ drug users that the committee wants to focus upon? Here, the recommendations become somewhat surreal. Again, the starting point is a recognition that the law doesn’t work – so what’s the solution? Bring in the men in white coats!

Users of heroin and crack cocaine are presented as suffering from medical disorders, in need of medical and therapeutic treatment. To this end, the select committee recommends the amendment of Drug Abstinence Orders, proposes that ‘appropriate treatment forms a mandatory part of custodial sentences’ and recommends that ‘an evaluated pilot programme of safe injecting houses for heroin users is established without delay’. The trajectory is clear – use medicine and therapy where the law has failed; and force doctors to do what the police and courts cannot.

‘We conclude that General Practitioners are, for the most part, inadequately trained to deal with drug misuse’, states the committee. ‘We recommend that training in substance misuse is embedded in the undergraduate medical curriculum and postgraduate General Practice curriculum.’ Expanding GPs’ role in dealing with illegal drug users is not only a way for the law enforcement authorities to abdicate responsibility. It further blurs the line between healthcare and social control.

More importantly, treating criminal drug users as addicts in need of treatment might look caring, but is more authoritarian than any punitive measure. To be punished for a crime and released is quite different from being assumed to be an addict for life, and locked into a therapeutic programme forever. Medicalisation of drug use does not represent a liberalisation of existing policy, but its extension into more areas of life.

Of course, so much of this is ridiculous. The very idea that you could get heroin users to sit around shooting up in ‘safe injecting houses’ as though they were drinking cups of tea is as bizarre as the notion that showing schoolchildren pictures of dead teenagers will stop them from popping the odd pill. But when doctors are called upon to do the work of the police, there is something quite serious going on. Having lost their ability to hold the line, politicians are turning to the healthcare system to do the job of the courts. That really is criminal.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) All quotes from the Third Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, ‘The government’s drugs policy: is it working?’

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Topics Politics


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