The panel recognises that, 'the courts approach to sentencing for supplying drugs has been driven by the desire to provide a deterrent effect. However, there is no evidence to show that lengthy sentences have the desired deterrent effect and research suggests that drug barons are more concerned about the loss of their assets than the threat of imprisonment.'
The deterrent effects of prohibition are poorly supported by the evidence. The response of Government to questioning on these claimed benefits has been to restate a ‘belief’ in such effects rather than to produce any evidence to support them. No research in this area has been commissioned or published by Government despite its centrality to the entire prohibitionist paradigm, and public commitments to do so. The limited research that has been done does not demonstrate any significant regional or national correlation between the intensity of enforcement and levels of use or misuse, suggesting any deterrence effect is marginal, especially for key populations responsible for causing most harms.
Reinforcing the view that criminalisation is not the best way to deal with drug use/misuse is a recent report published by the Cato Institute that reviews the impacts of drug decriminalisation in Portugal. The paper concludes that the change in laws has been overwhemlingly successful.
'The data indicates that decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU, particularly when compared with states with stringent criminalization regimes. Although post-decriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.'
The Cato report concludes that, 'Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.'
The sap consultation document looks at drug sentencing guidelines for the most serious offences and notes that they are harsher than sentences for rape or death by dangerous driving.
'Currently, Crown Courts impose higher sentences in the most serious cases of supplying drugs than they do for cases of rape of an adult, for the most serious cases of assault and for causing death by dangerous driving.'
The panel chairman, Andrew Ashworth, said,
'our provisional view is that current sentencing levels sometimes go beyond the levels that are justified by the seriousness of individual offences. We have compared them with the starting points for other serious crimes such as rape and grievous bodily harm and we want to know what other people think about comparative levels of sentences.'
Another key issue that the panel is consulting on is the sentences given to drug couriers.
'The Panel also considers the sentencing of drug couriers who are very often naïve, vulnerable men and women from third world countries whose fates are totally disregarded by those at the top of drug supply chains. Under the current approach such couriers often serve long prison sentences while their role in criminal organisations is minor. The Panel suggests that they should be treated as “subordinates” in the supply chain. This would be likely to lead to lower sentences than those currently being imposed.'
Keith Vaz MP announced recently that the Home Affairs Select Committee would also be carrying out a 'major inquiry into drugs that will begin at the beginning of April. We will look not just at what the Government have done in this case and at classification, but at the way in which drugs enter this country and at whether the penalties are sufficient to deal with what has been an increase in the availability of cannabis and other drugs. It will be a long inquiry and will be concluded at the end of the year, and we are willing and eager to have evidence and views from all political parties.'
Whilst Transform welcomes any consultation that commits itself to reviewing the evidence regarding the enforcement of prohibition, the narrow parameters of the sentencing guidelines consultation do not allow it to go far enough, and the HASC inquiry will not be much better as it will be limited to reviewing the status quo rather than looking at alternatives to the prohibitionist framework. What is needed is an open and honest public consultation on the wide-ranging effects of criminalising drug users as part of a impact assessment on the costs of prohibition for society.