Should Police Have the Power to Test Suspects For Drugs?

Yes, Peter Stoker, National Drug Prevention Alliance versus
No, Danny Kushlick, Drug law reform campaigner
Saturday October 2, 1999
The Guardian

Dear Peter,

Tony Blair’s call for mandatory drug testing for people arrested for criminal offences Is Me more than cynical rhetoric aimed at pandering to the law and order lobby. This is policy formation on the hoot there has been no consultation with practitioners or government departmental specialists to assess the effectiveness or repercussions of pursuing this initiative.

Of course there is a clear link between illegal drug use and acquisitive crime. But the under lying reason for this is the high price of illegal drugs on the unregulated market. Lets not forget that there is little if any property crme associated with tobacco addiction. Why? Purely because the price is low.

Suddenly the talk is of a ‘War on drugs”. Why no ‘War on alcohol”, by far the most important precursor to violent offending? Or a war on tobacco, by far the biggest killer?

It seems as if Tony Blairris marking his political territory like a tom cat. Apart from causing a stink, this will do nothing to address the underlying reasons for drug misuse that he claims others have ducked for so long.

What problematic illegal drug users need and want is access to effective treatment options before their offending even begins. This latest initiative flies in the face of more progressive measures that this government has been instrumental in developing up to now.
Yours sincerely, Danny Kushlick Director, Transform: The Campaign for an Effective Drug Policy

Dear Danny,

Conference rhetoric or no, drug misuse and related crime needs to move up the agenda. Mention of mandatory testing is, of course, akin to waving a red rag at a bull, but it can have a positive side: it may give more heroin and cocaine users a helpful shove into intervention or treatment But it follows, of course, that these services must be in place now.

Even If it were true and it isn’t that all drug crime is acquisitive, relaxing drug laws would not necessarily bring drugs within economic reach. Many legalisers foresee heavy taxation and, of course, changes in the law don’t increase the personal income of users. Many would still end up funding their lifestyles with crime.

You ask where the “war” on tobacco and alcohol has been. I ask: where have you been if you haven’t noticed the massive health promotion campaigns? And Labour are hardly monopolising the drug platform, as you imply: senior Tory and Lib Dem politicians alike have set out their stalls over the fast month. All party support for the national strategy continues.

That strategy calls for more treatment resources, as you do. Me, too but if you really want to reduce offending, prevention is the only way forward. Sadly, that notion gets abused as much as drugs do. Yours sincerely,
Peter Stoker Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance

Dear Peter,

I’m pleased to hear that you support the call for more treatment services. In my area, Avon, dependent users have to wait a year for a detox bed or a rehab place which means that those people who want help are effectively being denied it.

There are more than 250,000 dependent illegal drug users in the UK right now, and they are responsible for

Between a third and a half of all property crime. There are 12m dependent tobacco users and they’re responsible for none of it.

Our organisation Is not calling for a relaxation of the drug laws. Quite the opposite: the illegal drug market is the most “relaxed” and lucrative on the planet. It constitutes 8% of international trade and is subject to no control or regulation whatsoever. Transform would like to see this trade brought back into a regulated framework where it can be controlled through prescription and licensing.

There’s little we can do to “prevent” the activities of the millions of people already using and misusing drugs in the UK. However, we can make sure that those who do use drugs cause as few problems as possible for those who do not. We could begin by making free treatment available immediately for anyone with a legal or illegal drug problem and reallocating resources from the criminal justice budget towards social initiatives. Or we could just “shove”dependenttusers into non existent programmes. Yours sincerely, Danny

Dear Danny,

Yes, waiting lists for treatment are too long but they’d be an awful lot longer if we were to swallow your notion. “Regulating” supply means legalising or decrminalising the stuff, no matter how you play with words. This would mean a significant relaxation of the law, which would boost the use of dangerous drugs. The experience of every country which has tried this including Holland has been negative enough to provoke massive back pedalling.

Sweden had a major problem, and, at first, it tried to “regulate” it. They relaxed the laws, gave out harm reduction advice and the like only to find a major escalation of use and attendant problems. Then they switched to firmer laws, much better prevention resources, a range of social initiatives and mandatory intervention and treatment. The prevalence of drug misuse in Sweden is now a fraction of ours.

I don’t subscribe to the view that punishment should be the sole response to any crime, but we do need a system which intercepts and improves the situation. Your system merely appeases by accommodating the user at the expense of everyone else.
Yours sincerely, Peter

Dear Peter,

The illegal drugs market is worth a billion dollars a day and is currently controlled and regulated by organised crime. Yes, Peter, Transform campaigns ultimately for legalisation as the best way to regulate and control the drugs market. The average age of heroin users in the Netherlands is 39 and rising. In the UK its 26 and failing. Enough said?

The Blair Straw initiative to drug test people arrested for criminal offences flies in the face of the governments own studies, one of which showed that £1 spent on treatment saves £3 in criminal justice costs. One can only wonder how refusing bail fits in with this evidence. Liberty, the civil liberties group, has also suggested that the idea may breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Let us hope that Mr Blair’s speech was intended as Daily Mail fodder only. God forbid that he should actually attempt to put it into practice. In the US they don’t do rhetoric; acting “tough on drugs” there has helped raise the prison population to nearly 2 million. One in 35 adults in the land of the free are either in prison, on probation or on parole.

Transform’s millennium prediction is that this kind of mandatory drug testing will mean more prisoners, less treatment,’ more social exclusion, less freedom and little reduction in crime. How about a drug policy that’s tough on organised crime, not tough on socially deprived individuals?
Yours sincerely, Danny

Dear Danny,

It seems, after all, that the kind of treatment you are proposing for illegal drug misusers is to treat them with impunity. If they steal to buy drugs this is, you say, because they are socially deprived. Ergo, one crime is the justification for another. And your proposal for beating crime is to legalise it.

I’ll join you in tackling social injustice, and in pressing for more and better drug services, but all our research

and observation, inter nationally, shows your stance on drug laws to be profoundly mistaken. We don’t want to regulate the misuse of drugs, we want to minimise it whether the drug is illegal or not. Findings to date argue for a sensitive and flexible mix of justice systems, appropriate interventions (because not every user is an addict) and community wide prevention.

The rights and responsibilities of drug misusers should be balanced against those of non users, who rarely get a mention but are often the consequential victims.

Whether these latest ideas of mandatory testing and the withholding of bail will prove a bridge too far will become clear with time. But they do not invalidate the general strategic approach, which anyone genuinely interested in improving the situation for all including the drug misusers should support.
Yours, Peter

Source: Society Guardian Newspapers Limited , Saturday October 2, 1999



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