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There are smarter ways of dealing with drugs than legalising them - Colorado and Washington will learn this to their cost

    ‘Let ‘em use’ or ‘lock ‘em up’. Recent demands for drug legalisation suggest that drugs policy is a matter of ‘either/ or’. And that’s what the voters of Colorado and Washington must have believed to risk this ‘putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum’ moment.

    But this polarisation is misinformed and artificial.

    The fact is that we have more choices than mere enforcement or legalisation.  That is what Kevin Sabet, a former senior drugs policy advisor at the White House, thinks.

    I do too.

    He was, along with both Presidential candidates and the American Medical Association, voicing his opposition to marihuana legalisation – a policy option he rightly describes as ‘reckless’. (Though Colorado and Washington now back the ‘regulated’ sale of marihuana, the federal ban remains).

    Here in the UK, Joe McGallagly and Professor Neil McKeganey (Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow) also say this is a caricature,  albeit characterising the most recent and vociferous demands for ‘reform’.

    They argue that treating enforcement and treatment as alternatives neither reflects reality nor proven approaches to improving public health. 

    The fact is that countries with nominally more liberal drug laws than ours like Portugal (and indeed the Netherlands) still maintain their commitment to enforcement. Ironically they even have higher rates of arrests and custodial sentencing.

    Nowhere is there a utopia free of drugs related offending.

    Further, far from being harsh or punitive, enforcement policy has, over recent years, merged with treatment. Police in the UK for example decreasingly believe their role is to reduce supply – rather to ‘reduce’ harms.  In some areas like Cambridge, police operate needle distribution schemes.   The UK’s policy of court ordered drugs rehabilitation requirements and arrest referral also lead addicts to treatment.

    Also to assume that ‘treatment’ (methadone substitution) has anything more than a limited impact on reducing drug use and crime, the authors also point out, is mistaken, let alone having any purchase on recreational use. 

    However the Sabets, McKeganey’s and McGallaglys are, sadly,  some of the very few voices of rationality and reason in the madhouse that has taken over the drugs policy debate.

    The grossly over simplified ‘either/ or’ argument dominates debate and is used by the liberalising lobbies to pressurise the UN, the US and UK governments, step by decriminalisation step, into reckless legalising policy options.

    The votes in Colorado and Washington are testament to the lobbying of the celebrity backed Global Commission on Drug Policy.

    Spinning their legalisation case in the name of science has proved particularly effective.

    Here in the UK they have won over swathes of the media ready to believe that ending the so called ‘war on drugs’ is the panacea to the drug problem; that drugs law enforcement is tantamount to a failed policy.

    Except the evidence for this argument – that  drug use is spiralling out of control and has risen exponentially in ten years – turns out not be true.

    To the contrary that global drug use has been stable over the last ten years.

    That is what our analysis of the global drugs use statistics (here at the Centre for Policy Studies) checked and confirmed by the ONDC, shows. Also by contrast with the GCDP’s gloomy scenario the actual facts are that US drug use has declined dramatically (cocaine by a startling 75% in 25 years) and, with the exception of cannabis just recently, is still declining.

    In the UK too, as the most recent Drugs Misuse Declared statistics confirmed, drug use is at its lowest level since 1996.

    But Professor Colin Blakemore, a scientist spokesman for the United Kingdom Drug Policy Foundation, an organization founded ‘to provide objective analysis of the evidence concerning drug policy’, arbitrarily rules out the possibility that this decline in use can, in any way, be attributed to policy' (Times, October 15th 2012). Rather he asserts, ‘Bans and harsh sentences have been almost useless’.

    Facts do not get in the way of his narrative.

    In 2010 for example, only 12,175 people were sentenced for Class ‘A’ (heroin, cocaine and ecstasy) possession. Of these only 779 were sent to prison. Of these, just two, repeat two, received the maximum sentence of seven years (three years six months, in practice).

    How this can be interpreted as harsh, as a ban, or as illustrative of a failed enforcement policy all at the same time perplexes me. Professor Blakemore seems to be trying to have it all ways.

    A more dispassionate analysis of the evidence might suggest that our illegal status quo - despite its laxity - makes for a least bad drugs scenario. It has, whatever else, contained drug use to a fraction of the level of alcohol or tobacco use.

    Extent of use is the critical issue. For the compelling case made by the non-partisan RAND organization is that legalising cannabis (the most popular gateway drug) would greatly reduce its price thereby significantly increase its use.

    The evidence is that medicalised marihuana in the States is being abused.  Marihuana dispensed on every street corner is encouraging use by all age groups including children, and has led, in Colorado, to significantly higher rates of school exclusions. It also presents new problems to be dealt with like your physician legally ‘self-medicating’ on cannabis.

    The truth is that enforcement holds more ‘smart’ opportunities for change and reform than does the defeatist policy of liberal acceptance (let ‘em use).

    McGallagly and McKeganey’s research is instructive in this respect.

    Their interviews with a substantial sample of addicts, in the aftermath of three police led drug supply crack downs, demonstrates a new way of getting addicts into treatment. 

    Double the number of drug users reported contacting their methadone clinics. Whatever the reason (the authors do no speculate) whether drug supply cut off, rising prices, fear of future arrest, or just a straight reality check, the fact is these police raids changed behaviour and - most likely - saved lives.  Interestingly the impact of the police action was to bring proportionately far more users into treatment from needle exchange than the pathetic 1% achieved by our drug treatment services.

    The positive potential of smart enforcement has been underestimated. Drug courts were introduced in the US at the height of their cocaine epidemic in the 1980’s. Causal or coincidental, cocaine use since dropped dramatically.

    In Sweden too the link between proactive youth police work and their very low levels of teen drug use cannot be discounted. Swedish adolescents’ criminal records are expunged if they get clean and stay (drug tested) clean over three years.

    Given the very serious risks associated with cannabis use - especially by teens - significant IQ loss (an average of 8 IQ points by 37 years) and the triggering of psychosis and schizophrenia, liberalising ‘solutions’ such as those recently advocated by Professor Nutt and by the UKDPC are irresponsible for public health.

    The ‘smartest’ public health drug policies don’t turn their back on enforcement. They use it with the carrot of treatment. This is what the Mayor of London; Boris Johnson has put his support behind. He has begun a scheme which offers alcohol offenders ‘compulsory’ sobriety as an alternative to custody.

    That is just one example of what is possible. Teeing up treatment services in response to police drugs crack downs would be another.

    Neither of these approaches are the either/or ‘lock ‘em up’ or ‘let ‘em use’ policies of despair.

     

    *UPDATE* 

    The six Marihuana ballots that took place in America yesterday: 

    Arkansas

    Arkansas Medical Marijuana Questionsought to legalize marijuana under the guise of medicine and allow for the establishment of marijuana dispensaries licensed by the state. The question was sponsored by Arkansans for Compassionate Care. Defeated - 52% opposed 48% supported.

    Oregon

    Measure 80, Int. 9 Oregon Cannabis Tax Act Initiative - sought to legalize and regulate the cultivation, possession and sale of unlimited amounts of marijuana. The measure would also prohibit regulation and fess to grow hemp.  Defeated56% opposed 44% supported.

    Montana

    Initiative Referendum 124 - sought to reaffirm legislation passed in 2011 that replaced the state’s current “medical” marijuana law and replaced it with a more restrictive program.

    Passed – 66% voted to keep legislative changes to the “medical” marijuana program.



    Colorado

    Initiative 64 The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcoholinitiative allows those 21 years of age and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivate six marijuana plants. The initiative also allows for over-the-counter sale of marijuana, reduces penalties for larger possession charges and legalizes hemp farming. Passed- 55% supported 45% opposed.

    Massachusetts

    Question Threelegalizes marijuana under the guise of medicine and allows for the establishment of marijuana dispensaries. Passed – 63% supported 37% opposed.

    Washington

    Initiative 502 – allows adults 21 and over to purchase marijuana from state-licensed and state-regulated businesses. Creates a regulatory system, much like the liquor control system, in which a board oversees licensing of marijuana producers, processors and retailers, and imposes an excise tax of 25% at each step.  Passed – 56% supported 44% opposed. 

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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    Comments

    Anonymous - About 1898 days ago

    You seem to be grouping 'drugs' together and conflating the social and medical effects of one with another. The medical rehabilitation needs of a heroin addict are completely different from that (if any) required for users of cannabis. As I understand, any relaxation of laws voted for yesterday in the US related to cannabis use so I'm not sure the majority of your article (whether right or wrong on the points you do make) is at all relevant for the recent changes. Rather than build a case for maintaining drug laws, you have fallen into the same trap as other critics in treating all drugs (and the problems associated with them) the same. I know from my own use of tobacco and alcohol, and the clear difference in their effects, that such a view is just plain wrong.

    As for the RAND corporation's non-partisanship, that may be due more to the similarity of the two main parties than the open-mindedness you seem to suggest.

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    Martin Powell - About 1896 days ago

    In essence what you seem to be saying is that there are a range of options from a gung-ho drug war at one extreme, through "smarter" enforcement, and health based approaches, then decriminalisation of possession, to models of Government regulated production and supply (such as the US marijuana ballots call for which restrict advertising etc), and at the other extreme, free markets with minimal regulation.

    As you will know, the Organization of American States is currently reviewing all the different options for drug policy in the Americas, including options for legal regulation. In September, three sitting Presidents called for the UN to carry out a full review as well to weigh up all the options in an evidence based systematic way.

    Presumably if you are confident that what you are calling for would be supported by an independent comprehensive comparative analysis of all the alternatives, using the best available evidence, you support these reviews being done as long as they are thorough?

    Similarly, if you are confident your suggested options are the best, why are you not calling for the UK Government to commission a comprehensive independent review as well, if that included the options you suggest above, as well as legal regulation? I don't wish to sound rude, but if actually you don't have enough confidence in what you are calling for to have then assessed in this way, why should anyone else have confidence in them?

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