Last week Transform director Danny Kushlick had an op-ed published in the Guardian to mark the launch of the Drugs & Health Alliance, a group of organisations and individuals who are calling for a more evidence-based, public health-led approach to dealing with illegal drugs. Today sees a response in the Guardian from the Minister with the drugs brief, Vernon Coaker. Titled Its not moral panic. drugs really do destroy communities.
The first thing to say is that it's welcome to see a response from the minister, and whilst it comes across as tad defensive it hopefully points to a window of opportunity for some sort of engagement as the new drug strategy is being put together. Whilst definitely more engaged and marginally less waffly, a lot of the content in the piece is similar or identical Coaker's comments in this week's Drink and Drug news which I critiqued in detail here and don't need to be rehash. There are a couple of things that warrant comment however.
One is the way that again Coaker portrays Government policy as a reasonable compromise between two extreme poles:
"Too often the drugs debate is characterised by polarised viewpoints: those arguing for harm reduction versus those arguing for greater prohibition and tougher punishments for dealers and drug users. The drugs debate, however, is more complex, and I do not see this as an either/or issue."In the Drink and Drug news version this had a slightly different slant:
"I am keenly aware the debate over drugs remains highly charged and the challenge for government is to navigate a way through competing demands. I fully understand the strong emotions involved; but too often the debate is framed in extreme terms – some people argue for legalisation while others argue for tough enforcement – leaving little space for a rational debate in the centre ground. For example, in recent months we have heard from people who think drug legalisation would be the answer to solving the social problems associated with drug misuse. On the other hand, I do not have to go far to hear from people who call loudly for even tougher enforcement against drug dealers and drug users."I assume that the way 'legalisation' as extremism has morphed into 'harm reduction' as extremism is a mistake by whoever actually wrote the piece; the Government has been very clear in its support for (some) harm reduction initiatives (if less open about its role in creating those harms in the first place), and indeed Coaker expresses his support for harm reduction in the previous sentence. No, what is more odd is that Coaker is playing the navigating-between-extreme-positions card at the same time as perpetuating the entirely unevidenced policy of prohibition, a position that could only be described as extreme, involving as it does; mass criminalisation of 40% of the population and gifting control of multi-billion pound markets in dangerous drugs to violent criminal cartels (not to mention 40+ years of quite staggering failure).
I find it ironic that the figurehead of the horribly outdated, failed, and ideologically extreme policy of prohibition, would refer to a group calling for a greater public health focus and evidence based approach to drugs as 'extreme'.
For Coaker and the Home Office prohibition remains the elephant in the room. If they cannot acknowledge that the illegal markets prohibition creates are the significant driver of drug related crime and drug related harms, then any dialogue can only be a superficial one.
The other paragraph that jumps out at me is the second to last:
"Danny also recommended that we look to other countries - the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Portugal among them - which adopt a public-health approach to tackling drug use. We can always learn from abroad, but we have to be wary of making assumptions and comparisons. Ultimately, each country has to tailor its own strategy appropriate to its history, traditions and culture, through open and honest discussion about the problems it faces."The striking thing here is that the US does not get a mention. It is both the spiritual home of the enforcement led 'war on drugs', and also the role model for the UK's tough approach. Whilst the UK has arguably the worst drug problem in Europe, the US has the worst in the Western world. Perhaps this is no coincidence, yet still we choose to ape their approach, at least in terms of the political discourse, with our obsession with 'toughness' and all the the ludicrous trappings of zero tolerance; three strikes you're out, mandatory minimums, drug testing and sniffer dogs in schools, ever harsher sentencing, a ballooning prison population of non violent drug offenders, drug tsars - the whole shebang.
Coaker wants to have it all: the perceived political benefits of a tough talking 'war on drugs', as well a the real world benefits of a public health/harm reduction approach to drugs. Unfortunately he can't. A distinction needs to be made between harms related to drug use itself and harms created or exacerbated by the governments obsession with using criminalisation as its primary tool for managing drugs in society. If he can't do this then the genuine debate he claims to want will be anything but.