Monday, February 26, 2007

Yet another leaked government report critiques prohibition/calls for regulation

A report by Marie Woolf in the The Independent on Sunday reveals that the Government has been giving far more attention to progressive drug policy than they would like to let on. The IOS story, titled: ‘Heroin on the NHS and a document too hot to handle’ (unfortunately the story is not available online without subscription) has a pretty juicy scoop in the form of a ‘restricted’ Home Office brief intended for the eyes of Tony Blair, which they have managed to get hold of.

Some statements cited from the document include:

"There is mounting evidence of the impossibility of winning the war against drugs supply.""The Home Office should consider wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS"
A system of controlled availability of drugs would allow the Government to exert a much greater degree of influence over the way in which substances are used than is currently possible."
“there is a strong argument that prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs. One option for the future would be to regulate drugs differently, through either over-the-counter sales, licensed sales or doctor's prescription.’
These quotes are certainly striking, coming as they do from a Government that has steadfastly refused to even contemplate public debate on such matters. 'Dynamite' as Woolf describes them.

Perhaps the most interesting and encouraging thing about it is that it makes the most explicit high level call yet for the control and regulation of drugs, and specifically critiques the failure of 'prohibition'. It uses language that will appear spookily familiar to readers of Transform’s 'After the War on Drugs -Options for Control' report – linked in the margin to the right. It certainly supports Transform's position that, well, 'prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs' and our campaign to 'regulate drugs differently', specifically the 'controlled availability of drugs'.

The question now is how long can the Government ignore the mountainous evidence and calls (including repeatedly from its own advisors and civil servants) for a more rational approach to drug policy? Take one specific example – an expansion of heroin prescribing: there have been at least five major reports land on the Prime Minister’s desk in 8 years arguing for a such a roll out:

1. The 1999 Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 Police Foundation This made a detailed analysis of current policy failings and made recommendations for a number rational reforms, including the reclassification of cannabis, ecstasy and LSD, and a focus of spending on health rather than punitive enforcement. This independent report was roundly rejected by the Government on the day of publication – although many of its recommendations have subsequently been adopted. It called for more heroin prescribing.(Transform made a written submission)

2. The 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee Report: The Governments Drug Policy: Is it working? Powerful critique of supply side prohibition and detailed consideration of various options for reform including recommending more heroin prescribing. (Transform gave written and oral evidence and are quoted in the final report – which included a call for a Government debate on 'legalisation' at 'UN level'). All substantive recommendations were ignored.

3. The Strategy Unit report (Phases 1 & 2). In 2003 the Number 10 Strategy Unit was commissioned to produce what was initially described as ‘a scoping exercise' on illegal drugs. What emerged in Phase 1 of the reporting process, titled ‘Understanding the Issues’, was a thorough and clinical analysis by some of the best policy minds in the UK - of the counterproductive effects of national and global drug law enforcement. In December of 2003, Phase 2 of the report ‘Diagnosis and Recommendations' was produced. It later became known as ‘the Birt ' report' and its existence was made public, again by Marie Woolf in the Independent. Phase 1's critique of supply side interventions was sidelined, and Birt recommended an intensification of demand-side measures aimed at ‘gripping high harm causing users (HHCUs)’ in coerced treatment, in order to reduce property crime associated with fundraising to support a habit. This later culminated in the clauses in the new Drugs Act 2005 that mandate (with criminal sanctions including imprisonment) drug testing on arrest for certain trigger offences and mandatory treatment if positive. However – it also called for an expansion of heroin prescribing:

"In principle, there is a strong rationale for a more widespread use of heroin prescription in the treatment system
  • around 260,000 heroin users have serious habits which are predominantly funded through crime
  • it is better to draw those users into an environment where they can inject safely
  • where they can be persuaded to move down the pathway towards abstinence
  • it is also better to provide heroin freely to those users than to have them commit crime to buy it." (p.58)
4. The 2007 memo written by David Bennett, the head of the No 10 policy directorate, which according to the Sunday Times, 'outlines the prime minister’s “emerging ideas” for his last months in office which he hopes will be so far advanced when his successor takes over that Brown will have to follow them.' It includes the following idea: ‘Prescribing addictive drugs in a bid to help tackle drug-related crime.’

- Transform have blogged this article here.

5. and finally this newly revealed 2004 Final Report of the Crime Reduction Review detailed in the Heroin on the NHS and a document too hot to handle’ article.

So, just to recap: That's major reports in 1999 (Police Foundation) 2002 (Home Affairs Select Committee) 2003 (No 10 Strategy Unit) 2004 (Home Office crime reduction review), and 2007 (No 10 Policy Directorate) all telling the Prime Minister that expanding heroin prescribing is a good idea. This is not to mention the stream of senior police, documentaries and editorials making the same call, or the fact that Transform and numerous other NGO's in the drugs field have been calling for this for many years.So it was rejected (in the short term) as an idea, but it’s a relief to know that at least these things are being discussed (even if they don't want us to know). Who knows, one of these days we may even actually see an expansion of heroin prescribing, something the long since departed Blunkett promised back in 2002 – 5 years ago. Certainly no one will be able to claim it’s a big surprise when it finally happens.

See also: Has the heroin prescribing debate reached tipping point?

No comments: