THE UK spends more than any other country in Europe on its drugs policy – 0.48 per cent of GDP according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction. Yet it has some of the continent’s highest rates of problem drug use. More recently, we’ve also become global leaders in so-called legal highs – a web of constantly evolving and previously-unknown substances like miaow miaow and baths salts – with young people exposed to a new drug every six days.
In response to this trend, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform yesterday published an inquiry into how we can better tackle these new psychoactive substances. The problem with the existing approach is clear. Specific drugs are criminalised; from possession and use through to distribution. Certain drugs carry stronger penalties. But the harm caused by each drug is not proportionate to the penalty it incurs. And even if it was, all the evidence shows that higher sanctions for particular drugs do not prevent young people from using them.
The current system is only made more unworkable by the appearance of new drugs on an almost weekly basis. Because these are produced and distributed long before the government has had time to properly study their effects, let alone legislate to ban them, we’re criminalising drugs which are potentially less harmful than the ones young people are choosing to use. This means that we’re arbitrarily banning drugs we happen to know about, and incentivising people to use drugs we know almost nothing about.
The government took a clear step forward last year by introducing Temporary Class Drug Orders, which ban the supply of new drugs for a 12 month period, but do not make possession of those same drugs an offence. This gives scientists some breathing space to identify the harm caused. Critically, this has allowed the police to disrupt the supply of legal highs the second they become prevalent, rather than criminalising users. We need to extend these measures indefinitely.
But it’s also important to look at what other countries are doing to prevent harmful substances being used. In Portugal, for example, low-level drug possession no longer carries an automatic criminal sanction. Instead, users are sent before commissions which combine health policies with rehabilitation.
Unlike in Britain, the outcome is tailored to individual cases: treatment for addicts, fines and other sanctions for non-addicted repeat offenders. The drug taken and its effect are considered in detail. As a result, the prevalence of problem drug use and the number of young people addicted to drugs have both fallen. According to official Portuguese figures, the number of long-term addicts has declined from over 100,000 before the new policy was enacted to half that number today. The number of users in prison has also dropped.
At the same time, drug dealers are still targeted through criminal sanctions, so police can address the supply of drugs while the drug commissions focus on reducing demand. The approach has garnered support across the political spectrum, and is strongly supported by the police on the ground.
For the general public, it seems obvious that the government should listen to scientific advice and act accordingly. If one drug is more harmful than another, it should be dealt with differently. But the current system ignores that basic principal by removing power from the government’s scientific advisers. This has lead to conflicting messages about the A, B, C drug class system, and a dangerous set of myths about what effect each drug has. Why should any rational citizen believe that a drug is harmful to themselves or others if the government ignores scientists who say otherwise, or if they recategorise drugs on a whim?
It’s important that we move the drug debate away from the false idea that it is an all or nothing choice: criminalisation or legalisation. This kind of polarisation has caused untold harm, wasting thousands of police hours, burdening our criminal justice system and letting new drugs go unchecked.
The government can no longer stick its head in the sand and pretend that we can criminalise a handful of known drugs and the problem will go away. New psychoactive substances make the system untenable, and the only policies which appear to work are those which focus on criminalisation for suppliers, and rehabilitation for users.
Dr Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.