30 Oct 2014

Punishing drug abuse ‘does not deter users’

The Conservatives and Lib Dems clash on drugs policy as a new Home Office reports finds that criminalising abuse has no impact.

The Home Office said the government had “absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs”, despite a new report which found that punishing drug abuse does not deter it.

The report risks provoking a new spat between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, challenged the prime minister to look at issues such as decriminalisation or legalisation of possession.

The Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Number 10 said there was “no chance” that “reckless” calls for decriminalisation would be entertained.

“This report provides no support whatsoever for the Lib Dem’s policy of decriminalisation. In fact, it clearly states that it would be inappropriate to draw those kind of conclusions,” said a spokesman.

Political grandstanding?
Some commentators have accused rival politicians of using drug policy to bolster political standpoints regardless of the evidence. Writing online Paul Hayes, honorary professor of drug policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says "the real public health and crime crises that followed in the wake of the heroin epidemic spawned an evidence-based cross-party consensus that still underpins the policies in place today. And it is that same success that has freed the ideologues from the necessity to engage with messy reality and let them loose in an anarchic ideological playground."

“The Lib Dem policy would see drug dealers getting off scot-free and send an incredibly dangerous message to young people about the risks of taking drugs.”

Mr Clegg pledged earlier this year to abolish prison sentences for the possession of drugs for personal use, including Class A substances like heroin and cocaine.

Criminalising ‘has negative effects’

The Home Office study looked at different approaches to drugs policy and treatment in several countries, including some that impose tough criminal penalties for users and some that have almost entirely decriminalised possession of drugs.

It found no evidence that the severity of government policy, whether tough or soft, affected drugs use, indicating that criminal measures have little effect.

The report said Portugal found positive effects by treating possession of drugs as a health matter rather then a criminal issue.

While in the Czech Republic, worse health outcomes were observed after drug possession was criminalised, and there was no evidence of reduced use.

Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the report was “a historic moment in the development of UK drug policy”.

“For the first time in over 40 years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use,” he added.

“It has also acknowledged that decriminalising the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.”

The government is expected to launch plans to tackle “legal highs” by imposing a blanket ban on brain-altering drugs.

Ministers will also examine laws introduced in Ireland four years ago that prohibits the sale of all “psychoactive” substances but exempts some, such as alcohol and tobacco.