24 Jan 2012

Drug legalisation debate may be missing the point

As Sir Richard Branson recommends decriminalising drugs, Channel 4 News hears that the real fight for those harmed by drug misuse is against cuts to care.

Is drug legalisation debate missing the point? (Getty)

It was 100 years ago that the “war on drugs” began, with the signing of the first international drugs treaty.

It has been a hot topic ever since then, occupying policy makers and law enforcement agencies across the globe, whether the problem is drug addiction, trafficking or production.

But now some people are suggesting that, in the UK, the war may have been lost – or at least fought on the wrong battlefields all along.

As a committee of MPs opened the first parliamentary inquiry into drugs policy for more than 10 years, Sir Richard Branson – among the first to give evidence to the group – did not go easy.

He said the so-called war on drugs had “totally failed”, adding that the failure was caused by “trying to deal with it as a criminal problem rather than as a health problem.”

He told MPs it was time to look to models like Portugal, where drug possession for some drugs was successfully decriminalised a decade ago and users are treated as though they have a health and social problem, rather than a criminal one.

Services are struggling to survive at the moment. That’s the frontline. Martin Barnes, DrugScope

Sir Richard is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It warned last year that major policy reforms were needed to help reduce the prison population and stop wasting millions of pounds.

Dame Judi Dench was among a host of top stars to back the call, saying that decriminalisation of drug possession for some substances was the way forward.

The government’s official drugs advisers have also called for possession to be decriminalised. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said there was an “opportunity to be more creative” in dealing with those accused of possessing drugs, sending them on awareness courses rather than charging them with criminal offences.

However, the Home Office has already said it has “no intention of liberalising our drugs laws”.

Sir Richard’s call came as new sentencing guidelines in drug cases were issued to judges. Low-level street dealers caught with up to 6kg of cannabis, and some heroin and cocaine dealers deemed to have only played a minor role in the dealing could be spared jail from next month.

“Drug mules” who bring narcotics in the country, and who are often exploited by organised criminals, could also serve less time in prison under the Sentencing Council guidelines.

Drug treatment centre cuts are the real worry, campaigners tell Channel 4 News (Getty)

But Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, the UK’s leading independent centre of expertise on drugs, told Channel 4 News the debate, while welcome, was not necessarily the most important issue in an era of cuts – and declining drug use.

“What hasn’t really got much notice in recent years is that we have seen a gradual decline in overall reported levels of illegal drug use,” he said.

“For both adults and older school age children, reported levels of drug use are lower than they have been since the mid 1990s. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have significant problems but it is a trend that needs a bit more understanding.

“Clearly something has been happening – to some that might sound counter-intuitive, not least because of the amount of attention drug use receives. But whatever legal framework we have, it is still important to look at the issues around prevention, education and also treatment and recovery.”

DrugScope and other organisations have also warned in the past that cuts to services, part of wider government spending cuts, could put the UK back at least a decade in the fight against substance abuse, having a “devastating” impact.

Mr Barnes told Channel 4 News this is the key issue for people on the frontline now, rather than wider debates, as important as they are.

“Much as we welcome the home affairs select committee inquiry – it is important to have the discussion about law reform that Sir Richard Branson has opened up – for our members and for people harmed by drugs today, the big questions are on the future funding for drug treatment.”

Read more from Channel 4 News: War on drugs 'not working' 

He said there was already evidence of disinvestment in drug treatment centres, and warned that in a year’s time responsibility for drug and alcohol treatment will transfer to local authorities under the new public health plan, which some fear could lead to a decline in funding.

“There are increasing concerns that the £1bn available for drug treatment could be cut,” he said.

In response, a Department of Health spokesman told Channel 4 News: “The public health budget will be ringfenced for the first time. We are giving local councils the money, the power, the right expertise and information to build healthier communities. Every area of the country is different so councils will be able to decide what the most important public health concern is for them and spend the money appropriately.

“Giving local authorities responsibility for commissioning drug and alcohol treatment will bring together both prevention and recovery services in a way that has not been possible before.”

But Mr Barnes added: “Sometimes the discussions about law reform and decriminalisation can distract from the more immediate, pressing issues in terms of frontline support and delivery. Lots of services which at the moment work to support families where there are drug and alcohol misuse issues have been facing, and continue to face, cuts.

“Services are struggling to survive at the moment. That’s the frontline.”