Is it time for change in the war on drugs?

Drugs are 'evolving' more quickly than the law can respond to them
Drugs are 'evolving' more quickly than the law can respond to them
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As an influential Commons committee examines drug policy, Mike Crockart, MP and former policeman, explains that he wants a radical change, while Marjorie Wallace CBE fears a mental health timebomb; both warn that the fast-evolving problem is getting out of control

By Mike Crockart

After 50 years of criminalisation, illicit drugs are now the third most-valuable industry in the world. Countries like Mexico and Columbia are being torn apart by drug wars, and Britain, too, is facing a frontline battle.

Our prohibition approach has failed to stop drug use. The UK has the highest usage of several class A drugs in Europe, and the effects cost us heavily. In human terms, people are addicted, incarcerated and become the victims of crimes which fund addiction. In financial terms, we now spend more on drug policy than any other country in Europe.

Not only have our current policies struggled to limit the damage drugs cause, but the development of new drugs is changing markets too rapidly for traditional drug control methods to be effective. This was true during my time as a police officer with Lothian and Borders over a decade ago, and we weren’t faced with the plethora of drugs now available.

Today’s report into drug policy by the cross-party home affairs select committee gives us a real opportunity to change the way we look at drug policy in 21st century Britain. The year which the House of Commons’ home affairs committee has spent collecting and evaluating evidence will help us work towards what we need – an
evidence-led approach to policy based on independent scientific advice.

In short, the government must focus on reducing the damage caused by drugs. That means far more emphasis on effective treatment than on criminal sanction. There are models which are successful.

In Brighton, the police are working with those who offend because of drug dependency – making them tackle their problems head-on by talking about them. In the last six years, 500 addicts who would have gone to prison have instead gone into treatment shown to be far more effective at reducing dependency and reoffending. The cost to the criminal justice system if the traditional route was followed would have been more than £27.5 million.

Despite the excellent work of bodies such as the UK Drugs Policy Commission, there has been no proper review of the law since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Today, many at parliament are calling for a wholesale rethink of our approach to drugs, and it is a call I fully support.

• Mike Crockart is a Liberal Democrat MP

‘THE RISKS ARE FAR TOO GREAT’

By Marjorie Wallace

The problem with the publication of the home affairs select committee report on drugs policy is the conflicting political views and scientific evidence – which makes it even more difficult to give a clear, uncompromising message that taking street drugs is not only still illegal, but can damage the brain and rob young people of their lives and minds.

This vital message is lost in the confusion, but we at SANE are dealing with the daily reality of people who have been wrecked by drugs like cannabis, and particularly high-strength “skunk”, often because they have been seduced into believing the drug is legal and safe.

The problem with cannabis is that it is considered a “soft drug”, but it can have devastating effects on the developing brain. Recent research found that it can irreversibly reduce intelligence if smoked four times a week from the age of 13. Teenagers who smoke regularly may also double the risk of developing schizophrenia.

Over the last few years, we have seen a growing stream of evidence like this indicating that the harmful chemicals in cannabis can have a drastic effect on the minds and brains of the younger generation and lead to lasting problems, including reduced career prospects and broken relationships.

Yet while we have these contradictory messages, and while there still remains far too little research into the causes and cures of mental illness – and the effects on people’s mental health of substances such as cannabis – we cannot hazard a change in the law. The risks are far too great for the 10 per cent of people who have a genetic vulnerability to psychosis.

The problem is that debates such as the one we are having today simply will not wash with 13-year-olds. There remains an astonishing lack of public education that they are playing Russian roulette with their minds. This message will not be heard as long as celebrities and politicians give the impression, through the lobby of decriminalisation, that cannabis is a harmless recreational pastime.

• Marjorie Wallace CBE is chief executive of the mental health charity SANE

CAMERON: ‘OUR POLICY IS WORKING’

A REPORT from the UK Drug Policy Commission has suggested that penalties for drug misuse should be relaxed so that possession of small amounts would no longer be a criminal offence.

The research, which took six years to complete, said that the UK government was wasting much of the £3 billion it spends each year on tackling illicit drugs.

However, the idea has been ruled out by the Prime Minister.

David Cameron said the current policy was working in Britain.

“Drugs use is coming down, the emphasis on treatment is absolutely right, and we need to continue with that to make sure we can really make a difference,” Mr Cameron said.