Abandon the war on drugs, but start a war on addiction

Instead of fighting drug-related crime, we need to stop people taking drugs, says Iain Duncan SmithYesterday, the UK Drug Policy Commission recommended that the fight against drugs should focus on dealing with the criminal and anti-social elements that surround their sale. In other words, as long as drug dealers don’t start shooting each other, the police should turn a blind eye to their activities.

Yet the irony is that this plan has been followed all too often – with devastating consequences. In a notorious experiment in Brixton, dealers were left alone to sell cannabis, forcing local people to dodge them as they wandered up and down the streets, and to worry that their children would get caught up in the trade and the police would do nothing about it.

In Balsall Heath in Birmingham, the police also decided to leave the dealers to get on with their trade, preferring to monitor their activities. Residents saw front gardens became littered with needles, and prostitutes moved in. Thanks to the leadership of the sociologist Dick Atkinson, the community drove the dealers and the prostitutes out, and forced the police to treat them normally.

The truth is that the sort of communities where the police are being encouraged to adopt this approach are poor, with high deprivation, high crime and high levels of addiction – in other words, places that have already been written off, and which no one seems to care about. Just imagine the outrage if they suggested doing this to a middle-class suburb.

Yes, we have had a decade of failed drugs policy. But instead of more of the same, we should accept that the present policy has failed because it is centred on the wrong premise: that the purpose of our drugs strategy should be simply to minimise the harm that they do.

This approach is not only defeatist, but dangerous. It is a policy which seems to believe that so long as an addict doesn’t mug someone, kill them or rob their house, then that’s fine. It is a policy that parks addicts on methadone, entrenching addiction and ensuring that many of their children follow suit. It fails to address the problems of drugs and alcohol in terms of breaking the cycle of addiction, or in terms of recovery – which is why a significantly higher percentage of Britons are addicts than is the case with any of our neighbours. Rehabilitation treatment has been marginalised, with only a tiny number of addicts helped to get off drugs. The problem is made worse by the authorities’ failure to recognise that high levels of alcohol consumption among young people have a strong connection to the rise in the drugs culture.

Contrast this with Sweden, or even Holland. There, they understand that a successful drugs strategy needs to have a strong emphasis on clear laws, with the expectation they be policed. People are clear about what will happen if they are caught in possession of illegal drugs. In Holland, they spend three quarters of identifiable funding on law enforcement. Typically, this includes interdicting local production and trafficking. In the UK, the corresponding figure is far less, and there is little clarity about enforcement.

Second, these countries use the justice system to divert criminal drug users to care programmes, the purpose of which is to reduce reoffending and break the cycle of addiction. In Sweden, they tie successful involvement in such programmes to the expunging of the criminal record. Unlike in Britain, rehabilitation is seen as an integral part of the approach – and, unsurprisingly enough, the number of addicts as a proportion of the population is considerably lower than here.

What we need is not more rhetoric about a “war on drugs”, which is political nonsense. Instead, we must start a sustained process that aims to reduce drug-taking behaviour rather than containing it, and thus improves the quality of life for addicts, their families, and their communities.

Iain Duncan Smith is chairman of the Centre for Social Justice

Source: Telegraph UK. 30 July 2009

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