Set Setting and Dose: What Next for UK Drug Policy? A Reading into the Comparative Study

Picture of Parliament by Scott Anderson

Picture of Parliament by Scott Anderson

The coalition government’s recently, if belatedly, published comparative study of drug polices in 11 countries makes for an interesting read, even if it says little more than drug polices are formed out of a complicated milieu of social factors unique to each country. The complexity of policy writing is made obvious by this, yet any indication of what direction the government will move in, with regards to its own drug policies, if anywhere, is somewhat watered down.

The need for context is, of course, important. It also seems, however, to be a perfect defence against any recommendations drawn from another country’s method. If it wasn’t for the amount of debate around drug reform recently undertaken in the House of Commons, in the papers and beyond, any proposed deviation away from the Coalition’s 2010 Strategy, which Teresa May claims is indeed working, would likely not stand. In the words of Crime and Prevention Minister, Norman Baker, who actually resigned yesterday: ‘The debate has now been opened. I don’t think we can anymore rely on this stonewalling, of which we have so often had.’

The 2010 Strategy aims to reduce demand for drugs, restrict supply, and support users towards recovery, with the ultimate objective of having a population that does not use any of the substances banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The recent report explains that all the 11 countries – New Zealand, USA, Czech Republic, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal to name a few – share this ultimate objective. They vary in how they go about achieving it: from straight up criminalisation, through to decriminalisation, a legalised supply trade, and addicts being tolerated and cared for in communities.

Interestingly, though, taking into account all the various approaches employed by countries, there are no stark peaks or troughs in drug use, crime rates and health trends. This has led to a particular quote being picked up by the media, which no doubt will go down in history, and is most likely one of the thorns in Theresa May’s side at the moment (which might explain the delayed publication of this paper:

‘Looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.’

Also, the study concluded that when observing the results across the board, countries with similar policies have varying results, which would make drug use and all that surrounds it, not solely a legal, policy based, issue, bringing in questions of social-cultural frameworks.

The report is far from an admittance that the UK has failed in any way whatsoever on battling the so-called War on Drugs. On the contrary, the initial stats included in Theresa May’s forward state that drug use is on a downward trend with the percentage of 16-59 year-olds ‘who report having used an illicit drug in the last year’ standing at 8.8%, down from 12.3% in 2003/4. Interestingly, in contrast to other European countries, the UK sits above average in its rates of drug consumption. This is where it historically sits as, for some reason, the people on this island enjoy getting high or drunk or both and have done so for a very long time.

Image by Nick Neuhaff

Image by Nick Neuhaff

Heroin use is an interesting one. The evidence suggests that heroin and crack cocaine users are ageing and that fewer young people are starting to use these drugs. This can explain the so called ‘Trainspotting Generation’, the long term addicts over 35 who are regarded as having a slim chance in kicking the habit because bonds with family, friends and any community outside of the heroin scene is severed.

This is the result, the government might say, of illegal drug abuse itself, while pro- reformers often argue this is due to criminalisation itself, where addicts are pushed to the margins of society and are swept into the cracks. In this respect, a change to treating long-term addicts is a health issue rather than a criminal one. Interestingly, Drug Consumption rooms and Heroin Assisted Treatment are each methods explored in the Comparative Study.

The district of Vesterbro, Copenhagen, Denmark, is a progressively gentrified area where the local residents, whose neighbours are a number of people making up a big outdoor drug-taking scene, have lobbied the authorities to set up a Drug Consumption Room. After ten years of campaigning, the government wrote some ‘enabling legislation’ that permitted such a centre to open and be used by long term addicts over 18, and for councillors and medical personal to be on site and not be liable for aiding the consumption of illegal drugs.

The results have shown a drop in HIV and Hepatitis C infections. Acquisition crimes, which are often linked to heroin and cocaine addiction, have fallen, although there is a lot of petty crime around the centre and the police are called daily. There is an agreement with the police, however, which the study says is crucial to the workings of this centre, where they do not arrest over 18 year olds who are caught near the centre with drugs.

‘Relationships with the police are good. Two officers are designated liaisons, and attend meetings of the facility’s management board. The designated liaisons have a good understanding of the area and know many of the users well. We were told that the facility is supported by local police because it helps to facilitate a more co-operative relationship with drug users.’

This shows that methods like this work best when the legislature, the executive, local councils, police and residents in the surrounding area, including those living on the streets as part of the open drug scene, are all on board. DCR’s wouldn’t work in Japan where the social stigma for drug taking is strong and there is no backing from the public for them, the report claims.

Similarly, in Brighton, where there are high rates of drug use, public support for the Green Party’s proposal to set up a DCR wasn’t there. Questions came from the residents in the area like: ‘Would you want to live by a Drug Consumption Room?’ Not many people do. The residents in Vesterbro rallied together because there was such a scene being played out in the open. In Brighton, though, where drug use is high, there is not a large open scene where people are injecting in public. Most of the time this section of users are hidden from view, and we really only come to light through crime statistics.

Talking about drugs is a controversial subject within parliament, government and in households. Many years of reporting the dangers of them has lain a stonewall of opinion that drugs are simply bad; end of discussion. There was cross-party agreement, however, that our drug polices and laws are supposed to protect us, and need to be modified to reflect the population they are active on. This position, however, is not particularly discernible in the report, which frequently refers to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as ‘flexible’.

Picture by Scott Anderson

Picture by Scott Anderson

It is worth noting that this report and the on-going debate now taking place in Westminster is over the coalition’s 2010 strategy that aims to restrict supply, reduce use, and support people recovering from addition, where the ultimate aim is to have a society where the banned substances are not used outside of medicine. Drug taking within a religious setting, for instance, where the drug used is a banned substance, and in this context is known as an entheogen, meaning to realise God within, is not being considered at the moment. Perhaps this a reflection of religion to a large extent being left behind as atheistic and more scientific world views are increasingly prominent.

The prime example of drug decriminalisation, of course, is Portugal. Drugs here are considered illegal but will not result in criminal proceedings if the amount possessed is less than an average user would consumer over ten days. Youth employment rates have risen, because those who would have been tarred with a record are clear, and there is a weight off the criminal justice system as drug offences fell from 44% of cases in 1999 to 21% in 2008. Possession of drugs is an administrative issue and people are referred to a Dissuasion Court, where a committee decides the outcome. The report states:

‘It is not clear that decriminalisation has an impact on levels of drug use. Following decriminalisation in Portugal there has not been a lasting increase in adult drug use. Looking across different countries, there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.’

The study further concludes that there is a disparity in drug trends with countries that have similar approaches. It also observes there is no exact trend linked to a particular policy. Explaining that across all 11 countries, which varied greatly between criminalising and decriminalising approaches, there are no stark peaks or troughs in trends of drug use. It seems then that criminalising doesn’t lower use, and neither really does decriminalising. There is a steady block of the population, across the countries studied, who will use drugs whatever the legal status, regardless of how hard or light the law will rain down on them.

Knowing this then, the deciding factor on what approach a country takes seems to be based on whether or not a government wants to incarcerate a proportion of the population. The evidence holds that despite how ‘undesirable’ drug use is, people love intoxicating themselves, like they have done for time in memoriam, and there is a steady section of population who do so with banned substances.

The results are probably not the robust indicators that the 2010 Strategy is doing wonders to reduce the harm caused by drug misuse , which Teresa May was most likely hoping for. Along with the recent debate, the inevitable has happened though, with headlines such as: ‘The Drugs Revolution Starts Now as MP’s agree it’s High Time for Change’, from The Independent and, ‘Report Doubts Drug Use and Penalties’, from the BBC. The media and the public is coming round to reform, leaving the question of how and what our laws and social responses are going to, albeit slowly, change into. Drug use is very much like the drugs debate now. In the words of Norman Baker, it’s ‘out of the bottle and is not going back in.’

Via the House

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