Evidence based approach to drugs

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‘Evidence based approach to drugs’


Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, recently published an article in the Scotsman calling for ‘an evidence based approach to drugs.’

In the article he outlines a policy shift that includes looking at decriminalising drug users and specifically in regard to cannabis, looking at full legalisation. He cites successful legal markets in different parts of the world. Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman also announced the formation of an independent panel to examine the challenges that this would present.

In a similar vein, Richard Branson, recently leaked a UN document that outlined the failure of the war on drugs and the need for a changing approach to tackling drugs and drug use around the world. The UN quickly moved to distance themselves from the leak saying in a statement,

“The briefing paper on decriminalisation mentioned in many of today’s media reports… is neither a final nor formal document … and cannot be read as a statement of policy,”

The topics in the paper were due to be discussed at an international harm reduction conference in Malaysia, showing that behind closed doors at least, the UN is looking at other avenues to deal with global drug issues.

Portugal took what at the time was considered a controversial approach to drug policy in 2001 when they decriminalised the possession of all drugs, electing to treat addicts as opposed to prosecuting them. They stopped short of full legalisation and continue to prosecute suppliers. Possession of an amount that would last the user 10 days or less is no longer a matter for the courts. Instead, users are referred to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, usually made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

João Castel-Branco Goulão, Portugal’s national drug coordinator, says as a result of these policies the country has seen reductions in H.I.V. infections and in overdoses. Critics pointed to the initial increase in the prevalence of drug use among adults following decriminalisation, however, it quickly declined. Portugal now has 3 overdose deaths per million citizens, compared to the EU average of 17.3.

A UK Home Office report in October 2014 entitled ‘Drugs: international comparators’ found that there had been,
“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 report which has a foreword by Theresa May but was commissioned by the Liberal Democrats showed a ‘lack of any clear correlation’ between tough drugs laws and levels of abuse,

“There are indications that decriminalisation can reduce the burden on criminal justice systems.

“It is not clear that decriminalisation has an impact on levels of drug use.”

Despite these conclusions, the Home Office said in a statement following the release of the report, that:

“This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs”

“Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.”

When the government refuses to listen to the findings of their own report it makes clear the extent of the problem when it comes to drug policy reform.

According to the Governments definition: Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.

If as the government concedes addiction is a disease, why do we prosecute sick people instead of treating them as we would if they had any other disease?

Cathy Watson is an addictions worker from Townhead in the east end of Glasgow who mostly works with heroin addicts,

“I think for the population that have employment the fact a drug is illegal will affect their willingness to come forward, a lot of my work is with adults who do not have career prospects and some of them very often don’t have any employment, but for those who are in employment, or have a good job I think it impacts on them coming forward because they’ll be frightened they could lose their job.

“I don’t think reclassifications of certain drugs has an impact on the usage levels, if it does it would be miniscule and it certainly doesn’t affect the population I’m working with in the east end of Glasgow. If they want to use drugs, that’s what people generally do I don’t think they think about what class is this drug in.

“I don’t think current drug policies are working, because I’m still seeing the same people from the same group coming through all the time and actually some of the sons and daughters of the parents are now coming through. I think we’re replacing one drug with another drug and there are very few people who come off methadone and very often when we’re reducing the methadone it looks like a success but in actual fact the client group self medicates with street diazepam and alcohol.

“I don’t think we’re really offering people a rehabilitation to get their life back or to get a life, I think it’s about controlling the people as far as criminality. A lot of our work comes originally through criminal activity, the people have been in a court setting and they’ve been ordered that they have to get help, so no I don’t believe it’s working

“We need more drug workers, we need more doctors who specialise in drug addiction and that would also include alcohol as well as the other drugs. What I would like to see is a real rehabilitation of these families and the methadone could be part of it initially but we’re looking to have the people drug free.

“The other thing I think is wrong is the client group that I work with, they already have major disadvantages in life from birth and we’re making them be further and further away from mainstream society by criminalising them. So here we have the most vulnerable group of people living in deprivation that’s went on for two, three and four generations and we’re heaping on top of that criminal convictions that are keeping them further and further away from ever achieving employment and employment is the key for a lot of these people to get a life and also for their families to have a worthwhile life.”

In recent years’ public opinion seems to have shifted in favour of a more scientific approach to drug policy.  An Ipsos MORI poll in 2013 showed 53% of the public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised and 67% want a review of Britain’s approach to drugs.

Last year it was announced that Ireland will move towards decriminalising substances including heroin, cocaine and cannabis as part of a “radical cultural shift”. The Chief of Ireland’s National Drugs Strategy told a lecture at the London School of Economics that drug users will be able to inject in specially designated rooms in Dublin from next year.

Ireland will be watched closely by proponents from both sides of the drugs debate. If these policies are proven to be effective in a country that shares the same landmass as part of the UK, the government here will be hard pushed to continue with the status quo.

As with many important policy decisions, in the end I suspect it will come down to money. last year Colorado was forced to offer tax rebates after collecting a surplus from marijuana tax. The state has brought in $70 million in tax revenue since legalisation in July 2014. With the Chancellor poised to release a budget riddled with cuts to public services, the sheer scale of financial benefit being seen in places like Colorado may be one of the final nails in the coffin for ineffective prohibition-era policy.


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