A ground breaking study conducted by the Home Office seriously calls into question what is being described as the ‘rhetoric’ of drug laws in the UK. The study compared 13 countries with varying degrees of law enforcement regarding drug related issues, and found ‘no correlation’ between harsher penalties and lower drug use.
The long standing stance of the UK government that tough laws and harsh penalties are needed to crack down on drug-abuse is severely discredited by this revolutionary report. Championing the study is the Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker who condemns the ‘lazy’ attitude that has prevailed over the past 4 decades for simply assuming that ‘harsher penalties will reduce drug use.’ He states that, if anything, the evidence points the other way and claims that ‘banging people up and increasing sentences does not stop drug abuse.’
Punitive laws have for too long been seen as the only way to tackle drug ‘crime,’ but what this attitude critically overlooks is the fact that drug abuse is a predominately social problem. More needs to be done to solve the underlying issues that create and surround drug problems in an effort to understand and rehabilitate drug users rather than simply ‘punishing’ them.
A ‘revolving door’ is often described as the way that the current criminal justice system deals with those with drug problems: banging them up, offering little help and then releasing them only to fall back into the same old problems and be picked up and imprisoned once again. This system clearly is not working as a ‘deterrent’ as once hoped and is yet another example of governments time and time again burying their heads in the sand and not looking to other, and more cost-effective ways, of tackling drug abuse problems. Indeed, some in government are starting to see these recurrent problems; the Green Party’s MP Caroline Lucas has called for the government to reconsider the ‘Misuse of Drugs Act’ looking from the perspective of cost-benefit.
The report looks to other countries by way of comparison and their way of managing drug related issues. It compares countries such as Portugal where criminal penalties for personal drug abuse were scrapped resulting in a significant drop in drug related deaths. It is clear that reform to treat drug misuse as a health problem rather than a criminal one is a step towards reducing untimely death and making sure those who really need help get it. Clearly a distinction needs to be made between those abusing drugs for personal use, suffering from an addiction problem and those who are the ‘real’ criminals supplying and profiting from this illicit use.
The debate has split Westminster and the rift can be seen most clearly right down the centre of the coalition. Whilst the government remain clear that there will be no move to decriminalise drugs, earlier this year Nick Clegg called for powerful reform of the UK’s ‘utterly senseless’ drug laws and went as far as to pledge to abolish prison sentences for personal use. This report, backed by many in the Liberal Democrats has also coincided with another report championed by the Home Secretary Theresa May in ‘clamping down’ on drug use by creating a ‘blanket ban’ on legal highs.
There is increasing friction in government over this issue and what this report has done is glaringly highlight those tensions. Clearly, drug laws as they stand need to be reconsidered and hopefully the government will be able to come to some sort of compromise- a cost-effective system which still effectively deters drug abuse whilst offering help to those addicted. With such conflicting ideas within Parliament itself it’s questionable however when, if ever, such a compromise could be reached.