Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Transform in the Economist

The following article appears in this week's Economist, quoting Danny Kushlick from Transform. It is a typically level headed piece from the Economist, long time supporters of pragmatic drug policy and law reform, on the basis of some fairly obvious cost benefit analysis.

Drug-strategy review

Prescription renewal

Jul 26th 2007

No one can get rid of drugs but reducing the harm they do is cheap and simple

IT WAS the day the cabinet came out of the closet. When Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, admitted on July 19th that she had smoked cannabis in her student days, ministers rushed to get their own confessions out of the way. By the end of last week seven of her senior colleagues, including the chancellor and the drugs minister, had come into the open about their own youthful pot-smoking.

By wonderful irony the prime minister, Gordon Brown, had a day earlier ordered a review of the drug's legal status. In 2004 cannabis was downgraded from a class B drug to class C on the official three-point scale of seriousness which supposedly reflects the harm that illegal drugs cause and determines the penalties attached to possessing or dealing in them. Now, as the government prepares to renew its ten-year drug strategy, Mr Brown has hinted that he favours upgrading cannabis again.

It is only two years since the last review of cannabis classification, which left things alone despite reports that modern varieties were stronger than the sort that Miss Smith used to puff. And it is just a month since Mr Brown declared he had no wish to revisit the subject. A recent Tory report calling for cannabis to be upgraded, among other “tough” anti-drugs proposals, may explain his change of heart.

Britain's main problem drug, in fact, is alcohol. Young Britons swig far more than their peers in any other rich country, according to UNICEF. Drink-related deaths nearly doubled between 1991 and 2004, to 8,221—many more than the 1,644 who died from drugs in 2005. But Britain is also the stoned man of Europe. Among teenagers, only the Swiss smoke more cannabis; British adults beat most others on heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. The government says drug-taking is falling (see chart), but most of this is down to a dip in cannabis. Cocaine, more dangerous, has flourished.

This is despite a decade of real “toughness”. The number of jail years given for drugs offences increased by 22% between 1998 and 2005, thanks to longer sentences and more convictions. Officers seized nearly seven tonnes of cocaine in 2003, compared with less than one in 1996.

It is hard to know how strongly would-be drug users are deterred by the law, but the decline in cannabis consumption since it was downgraded suggests not very. And despite the efforts of the coastguards, cocaine is cheaper now than it was a decade ago. The government will not say how much its drug-enforcement efforts cost, but an estimate from the UK Drugs Policy Commission, an independent board of brains, puts it at about £2 billion ($4.1 billion) a year.

The £570m allocated for drug treatment last year is a fraction of this, but it is nearly a third more than three years ago (alcoholism charities now say they feel left out). The number being treated has more than doubled in the past decade; some 55% of those the Home Office identifies as “problem” users are enrolled, compared with 17% in America. Measuring results is more important than just “pushing people through the door and counting them”, says Danny Kushlick of Transform, a campaign group. But efforts to measure effectiveness are improving too. On July 25th NICE, the body that measures the cost-effectiveness of medical care, released guidelines on drug treatment, recommending innovations including vouchers for those who wean themselves off the stuff.

Those who cannot give up can still be helped. Doubling the proportion of primary schools that provide drugs education has not stopped cannabis use among 11-year-olds from increasing, but may help children who take risks to do so more safely. An official “safer clubbing” campaign warns youngsters not to mix ecstasy with other drugs if they choose to take it. Needle-exchange depots give heroin users a chance of escaping AIDS and hepatitis. Ayesha Janjua of Turning Point, a charity, would like sterile spoons, filters and other equipment to be made more widely available. This strategy seems to be paying off. Until 2001 the number of deaths from drugs had been rising steadily. Since then it has fallen back to below 1997 levels.

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