Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The fault lines within current drug policy

Extract 4 from transform's upcoming publication: After the War on Drugs - Tools for the Debate..

As a way of demonstrating the fault lines in the drug debate, consider the two pieces of text juxtaposed below. On the left is the introduction to the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy by the (now former) Prime Minister Tony Blair, published in March 2004 . In many respects it reflects the reformer’s perspective on the drug debate fault lines described above: an acceptance of the reality of drug use (in this case alcohol) in the UK and a rational strategy to minimise alcohol related harm, both to consumers and to wider society, through a series of pragmatic regulatory responses based on evidence of effectiveness. On the right is the identical text with one minor editorial change made by Transform: the word ‘alcohol’ has been changed to ‘drugs’, and the word ‘drinking’ has been changed to ‘drug use’. This juxtaposition demonstrates that the fault lines in this debate, once the ‘hot button’ issue of drugs is removed, are by no means as polarised as they appear. The exact same fault lines actually exist within current drug policy.

Bizarrely, the Government is simultaneously running, on the one hand, a policy on legal drugs based on using public health and evidence led regulation to minimise harm, and on the other hand a policy on illegal drugs that ignores evidence of effectiveness and uses the criminal justice system to enforce a dogmatic moral view.

Transform have read out the revised version of the text below (right) in debates to great effect. It really forces people to think (and, whilst not meant as a joke, sometimes gets a few laughs).

Why This …

Millions of us enjoy drinking alcohol with few, if any, ill effects. Indeed moderate drinking can bring some health benefits. But, increasingly, alcohol misuse by a small minority is causing two major, and largely distinct, problems: on the one hand crime and anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, and on the other harm to health as a result of binge- and chronic drinking.

The Strategy Unit's analysis last year showed that alcohol -related harm is costing around £20bn a year , and that some of the harms associated with alcohol are getting worse.

This is why the Government has been looking at how best to tackle the problems of alcohol misuse. The aim has been to target alcohol-related harm and its causes without interfering with the pleasure enjoyed by the millions of people who drink responsibly.

This report sets out the way forward. Alongside the interim report published last year it describes in detail the current patterns of drinking – and the specific harms associated with alcohol . And it clearly shows that the best way to minimise the harms is through partnership between government, local authorities, police, industry and the public themselves.

For government, the priority is to work with the police and local authorities so that existing laws to reduce alcohol-related crime and disorder are properly enforced, including powers to shut down any premises where there is a serious problem of disorder arising from it. Treatment services need to be able to meet demand. And the public needs access to clear information setting out the full and serious effects of heavy drinking.

For the drinks industry, the priority is to end irresponsible promotions and advertising; to better ensure the safety of their staff and customers; and to limit the nuisance caused to local communities.

Ultimately, however, it is vital that individuals can make informed and responsible decisions about their own levels of alcohol consumption. Everyone needs to be able to balance their right to enjoy a drink with the potential risks to their own – and others' – health and wellbeing. Young people in particular need to better understand the risks involved in harmful patterns of drinking.

I strongly welcome this report and the Government has accepted all its conclusions. These will now be implemented as government policy and will, in time, bring benefits to us all in the form of a healthier and happier relationship with alcohol.

Foreword to the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England

Cabinet Office

Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, March 2004

… But Not This?

Millions of us enjoy drug use with few, if any, ill effects. Indeed moderate drug use can bring some health benefits. But, increasingly, drug misuse by a small minority is causing two major, and largely distinct, problems: on the one hand crime and anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, and on the other harm to health as a result of binge- and chronic drug use .

The Strategy Unit's analysis last year showed that drug -related harm is costing around £20bn a year, and that some of the harms associated with drugs are getting worse.

This is why the Government has been looking at how best to tackle the problems of drug misuse. The aim has been to target drug-related harm and its causes without interfering with the pleasure enjoyed by the millions of people who use drugs responsibly.

This report sets out the way forward. Alongside the interim report published last year it describes in detail the current patterns of drug use – and the specific harms associated with drugs . And it clearly shows that the best way to minimise the harms is through partnership between government, local authorities, police, industry and the public themselves.

For government, the priority is to work with the police and local authorities so that existing laws to reduce drug-related crime and disorder are properly enforced, including powers to shut down any premises where there is a serious problem of disorder arising from it. Treatment services need to be able to meet demand. And the public needs access to clear information setting out the full and serious effects of heavy drug use.

For the drugs industry, the priority is to end irresponsible promotions and advertising; to better ensure the safety of their staff and customers; and to limit the nuisance caused to local communities.

Ultimately, however, it is vital that individuals can make informed and responsible decisions about their own levels of drug consumption. Everyone needs to be able to balance their right to enjoy using drugs with the potential risks to their own – and others' – health and wellbeing. Young people in particular need to better understand the risks involved in harmful patterns of drug use.

I strongly welcome this report and the Government has accepted all its conclusions. These will now be implemented as government policy and will, in time, bring benefits to us all in the form of a healthier and happier relationship with drugs.

Foreword to the Drug Harm Reduction Strategy for England

Cabinet Office (with edits by Transform)

Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, March 2004



part 1
part 2
part 3




online July 2007...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Neat but there is an intellectual flaw and barrenness about that argument Steve. All possible substances are not equally valid to be used as what you call "recreational drugs", nor are we starting as a society from where we started in relation to tobacco & alcohol. From a profound ignorance about the addictiveness and harm potential. The existing legal drugs are harmful enough without changing the culture as you propose to legitimise more. Think for a moment about say, crack and fentanyl. Think about methamphetamine. The whole history of drugs use, worldwide, is that harm from them can be limited through social, legal or cultural taboo. Think about alcoholism in say Morocco or Pakistan, think about the differences in tobacco use & penetration between even the UK and say Lithuania or other eastern european countries.

Steve R said...

how did prohibition prevent the problems with crack and methamphetamine? It clearly didnt in the US where both were shedule 1 drugs before the respective epidemics occured. the same can be said for heroin in the UK which has exploded since 1971, or ecstasy in the UK in the late 1980s, the rise of both was under the shadow of a class A deterrent.

I agree that social and cultural regulation is absolutely imperative, but I see no evidence that enforcement related deterence is anything more than a marginal impact on drug taking descisions, and almost totally irrelevant for the marginalised and excluded groups most at risk of developing problematic patterns of use. I actually think that heavy handed enfrcement can interfere with the natural developnment of social norms and culturally led prevention. It alienates young people - who are subject to mass criminalisation - from messages from authority figures, and may actively contribute to the underground glamour associated with ,and perverse demand associated for some of the most dangerous drugs.

Smoking is falling now in the UK, not through criminality but through better education and prevention combined with stricter regulation, and increasing social stigma. I suspect a fall in alcohol use could be similarly achieved.

Recreational drugs is not a value specific term, merely identifying use that is non medical and essentially pleasure seeking. It does not imply a moral position or an absense of harm.