Thursday 16 December 2010

Drugs and Politicians

Drugs and politics seems to be a lethal mixture.  Not so much the taking of drugs but rather the inability of most politicians to think clearly about drugs and what the country’s policy to drugs should be.  This morning we heard on the radio Bob Ainsworth, a former Home Office minister who had responsibility for drugs policy, calling for all drugs to be legally available.  He made the not unreasonable point that the approaches of successive government had all failed, leaving criminal gangs in control.  And in response to this call, the government and the Labour party immediately tried to close down any serious debate.  Both more or less simply dismissed legalisation as out of the question and some called Mr Ainsworth’s suggestion irresponsible.  See what I mean by drugs and  politicians?
Why is there such uniformity of (non) response when anyone calls for a rational debate about drugs policy?   The current policy and its consequences are a mess.  Drugs can cause terrible harm to users.  Tobacco for example kills thousands of people each year.  Not only the users suffer with tobacco, but non smokers can suffer the damages caused by the weed.  Yet tobacco is still legal, albeit with restrictions on where you can smoke - not in public places.  Here the overriding policy is one of health and harm reduction.
Alcohol of course remains the biggest killer and alcohol is a major factor in much of the violence that goes on in our towns and homes.  Yet, outwith Muslim countries, alcohol is not just legal, it is actively promoted and usually regarded as a good thing.   Addicts are encouraged to get treatment and only if they commit a crime are they punished.  
Another case for concern is the growing number of people who depend on prescription or over the counter medicines.  This can lead to sever cases of addiction and even death.  Not only drugs can cause harm.  The over consumption of food is causing growing damage to an increasing number of people.  While the deliberate under consumption of food is now regarded as a medical condition.   Once again the emphasis of policy is on health and harm reduction, not punishment.
In the examples mentioned above the damage comes from the mis-use of the substance - usually smoking, drinking or eating far too much.  However in the case of the currently defined illegal drugs - cannabis, cocaine, heroin etc - the mere consumption is a crime.  Why do we treat some drugs so differently form others?  The benefits of this policy seem very hard to discover.  The growing power of drug barons in Columbia and Mexico do little for the well being and economic prospects of these countries.  While the apparently insatiable demand for drugs from Americans continues we have a classic supply and demand situation which no amount of policing or crime busting can stop.   It is pretty similar here in the UK and much of the rest of Europe.  Rising amounts of violent crime associated with drugs.
We desperately need to look hard and seriously at other approaches.  As with tobacco and alcohol, I would suggest that the key priorities are to focus on health and harm reduction and to clear out the criminal gangs involved in the drugs trade.  Legalisation is one policy option which we should be debating in an open, serious and rational manner.   It is long past time to stop pretending that the current policies are working.

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