End this catastrophic approach to drugs policy

The Government must “get rid of the fantasy at the heart of the so-called war on drugs, which has been a stupid and catastrophic failure”, Norman Lamb argued in Parliament today.

Speaking in a debate on the government’s new drug strategy, Norman said that prohibition has been “a monumental failure of public policy”, and called for a “fundamentally new approach” to the use of drugs that seeks to reduce harm.

The Liberal Democrat Health spokesperson welcomed the focus on evidence-based drug treatment programmes and on addressing the underlying causes of addiction (such as poor housing and mental health issues), in contrast to the ‘damaging’ over-emphasis on abstinence in previous strategies.

However, he condemned the Government’s failure to introduce fundamental reform of Britain’s drugs laws and its refusal to consider the case for the decriminalisation.

In his speech, Norman emphasised the “shameful” number of people who die through drug misuse. In 2015, the number of deaths increased by more than 10% to hit record levels, while the number of deaths from heroin has doubled since 2012. These people can no longer be dismissed as “victims of their own stupidity”.  The death rate from drugs in the UK is 10 times that of Portugal, where decriminalisation has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths from drug use as well as improved health outcomes.

While Britain is stuck in the dark ages, Norman highlighted that other countries are increasingly coming to adopt a more enlightened approach to drugs policy. In Portugal, after initial resistance to decriminalisation, there is political unity across the spectrum. In the United States, more and more states are moving towards regulated markets for cannabis, while the Liberal Government in Canada is also legislating to introduce a legal regulated market.

Closing his speech, which you can read in full here, he issued a strong challenge to the Government:

“I make this plea: do not claim that the case for change is irresponsible, but bring about change because it will save lives, it will reduce HIV and hepatitis C infection, it will protect people better, it will end the ludicrous enriching of criminals, it will cut violence in our poorest communities, it will end the self-defeating criminalisation of people who have done exactly the same thing as successful people in government, in business and in all sorts of walks of life, and it will raise vital tax revenues. Follow the evidence. Do not perpetuate the stigma and the fear. End this catastrophic approach to drugs policy.”

During the debate, Norman also made the following important points:

  • The new strategy makes welcome references to drug rehabilitation requirements as a sentencing option, along with alcohol rehabilitation requirements and mental health treatment requirements. ​However, the Government must focus on making sure that all of these sentencing options are available everywhere in the country, which hasn’t previously been the case.
  • The strategy makes no mention of improving access to drug consumption rooms / heroin injecting facilities which allow drug users to inject safely under supervision. Evidence suggests that the use of drug consumption rooms has the potential to save lives, and these are currently being piloted in Glasgow.  
  • The war on drugs has had extraordinary consequences. It has massively enriched organised crime to the tune of billions of pounds every year, and has criminalised young people in particular.
  • Criminally controlled drug supply markets lead to appalling violence, widespread human rights violations and an “extraordinary death toll”.
  • We criminalise people with mental health problems who may well end up taking drugs as an escape from the pain that they are suffering. It is “cruel and stupid” that we prosecute them and give them a criminal record.
  • Criminalising the possession of drugs has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities which amounts to ‘extraordinary discrimination’. Although illegal drug use is lower among BME groups than in the white population, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs.
  • The Government’s objectives are undermined by “counter-productive” cuts to public health funding. The King’s Fund recently highlighted that councils across the country have planned to reduce their expenditure on tackling drug misuse in adults by £22 million.
  • The Royal Society for Public Health, in its response to the Government’s strategy, says that it “falls far short of the fundamental reorientation of policy towards public health and away from criminal justice needed to tackle rising drug harm. Decriminalisation of drug possession and use is a critical enabler that would enable drug treatment services to reach as many people as possible as effectively as possible. Instead, the Government still continues to lead with unhelpful rhetoric about ‘tough law enforcement’ that contributes to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of vulnerable drug users”.
  • Although ministers still use the language of having a tough approach to enforcement, the Home Office’s own report from 2014 showed that there is no link between the toughness of a regime and the level of drug use.
  • An expert panel recommended that in the interests of public health, we should move towards a regulated cannabis market where we control potency, who grows it and who sells it. That protects those at risk of psychosis and memory impairment. If people buy from a criminal, they have no idea what they are buying. The criminal has no interest in people’s welfare; they simply want to make a fast buck from them.

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