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Drugs and Society. Time for a Grown Up Debate #DanDermBook

We would love to hear your feedback on this excerpt from our book which is awaiting publication.

Sample from Part Two. Drugs Policy
Drugs, the mere mention of the word is guaranteed to produce the following responses; from the press, “(insert random celebrity)in Drugs Hell!!!”, from parents, “It’s our NUMBER ONE FEAR!!!”, from the Daily Mail, “Drugs are everywhere!!!”.

But from politicians? One hundred per cent deafening silence. When was the last time you heard a politician make a statement on drugs which doesn’t involve headline chasing, catch all condemnation? Us neither.

There has rarely been a grown up and rational debate around the use of illegal drugs in Society. New Labour, somewhat surprisingly given their obsession with not upsetting so called Middle England and the Daily Mail demographic, took the bold step in 2001 of announcing that cannabis would be downgraded to a Class C illegal drug. David Blunkett’s announcement when he was Home Secretary was an important one. Class C status basically meant de criminalisation for personal possession, and was based on advice dating from as early as 1979 from the Misuse of Drugs Advisory Panel. They felt that the potential “harm” resulting from it’s use was disproportionate to it’s status, and would free up the police to crack down on harder drugs, and whole sale cannabis suppliers.

The Daily Mail responded with the headline; “Cannabis Kills 30,000 a Year” . Further reading of the article however, provided evidence of the Mail’s hysterical angle. The 30,000 figure had in fact been plucked out of the ether. Prof. John Henry, an eminent toxicologist actually put the issue into proportion; “Even if the number of deaths turned out to be only a fraction of the 30,000 we believe possible, cannabis smoking would still be described as a major health hazard.” Hardly the UK going to hell in a drug fuelled handcart.

But New Labour finally bowed to tabloid hectoring as Gordon Brown outrider Ed Balls admitted in 2005 that along with Iraq, the cannabis issue was, “something we could learn from”. We find it fascinating that Balls placed the drug reclassification in the same league as a criminally botched and illegal war, but such was the obsession with the Daily Mail agenda that proportionality went out of the window. However to his credit Blair’s home secretary Charles Clarke resisted the media clamour and maintained the classification in a 2006 statement to Parliament.

But in 2007 newly crowned prime minister Gordon Brown ordered his home secretary Jacqui Smith to ensure cannabis was placed back in the harder category B. Despite contrary advice from the Drugs Misuse experts Smith announced the move in January 2008, and Labour’s last home secretary Alan Johnson confirmed matters in 2009.

The point of this rather pointless series of events is that politicians cannot be trusted to look at the evidence, weigh it up and make an informed decision when it comes to drugs. As if to prove the point Johnson decided to sack his drugs advisor David Nutt in October 2009 because the medical expert who has a vast well of properly researched knowledge on drugs as whole, had dared to question government policy. Nutt said in a lecture that month, “hunting down low-level cannabis users to protect them is beyond absurd”, as chances of psychosis induced episodes presented a “small risk”. He described the cannabis policy as “politically motivated”.

Johnson is an astute politician and must have been influenced by the experiences of his constituency in Hull, a largely working class area where this is little doubt that drugs play a very harmful role in people’s lives. Nevertheless he deliberately chose to ignore the experts and made policy based on gut reaction.

Cameron has almost gone out of his way to avoid the drugs issue. It is on the record and in the public domain that the prime minister has brushed with illegal substances. As a 15 year old student a top public school, Eton College, David Cameron was punished for admitting to the school authorities that he had bought drugs in the nearby town. Then in 2005 Cameron was put on the spot during the Tory leadership race over possible use of cocaine. On the record and in front of the media he stated that he had not snorted coke since becoming an MP. This led the Daily Mail to conclude, “But since he did not become an MP until June 2001, this could revive speculation that he experimented with drugs as a younger man.” Daily Mirror associate editor Kevin McGuire routinely refers to Cameron as, “Druggie Dave” in his New Statesman column and George Osborne has endured his own problems related to Class A’s.

Call girl Natalie Rowe told the media in 2005 that a youthful Osborne had taken cocaine with her. In September 2011 the Daily Mail revived the issue accusing former News of the World editor and Tory spin doctor Andy Coulson of killing the story as a favour to the then shadow chancellor. Ms. Rowe challenged Osborne to sue if the story was untrue.

This proves that drugs are not confined to dodgy deals with young hoodied men on bikes. Drug abuse is not the sole prerogative of the indolent, sponging off benefits working classes.

But before we let facts get in the way of making policy, let’s actually look at some so we can get the issue in proportion.

In July 2013 the British Crime Survey which reports to the Government came up with following; “8.2% of the population had taken an illicit drug in the last year”. Of those incidents, “2.6% of the population had taken Class A drugs”. When the usage was broken down, “Cannabis was the most commonly used drug, with 6.4% of adults aged 16 to 59 using it in the last year. The next most commonly used drugs in the last year were powder cocaine (1.9%) and ecstasy (1.3%).Crucially the survey reported that the “proportion of adults aged 16 to 24 taking any drug in the last year was 16.3%, down from 19.3% in 2011/12.”

These figures are classic example of us as a UK public having no idea about real statistics. Everyone we asked over egged the numbers by at least a quarter. And young people were expected to routinely use drugs, abstention being the exception rather than the rule according to our admittedly completely random and unscientific methods.

What are the problems with drugs? Obviously there is the health angle. However when heroin addiction was the preserve of the professional classes pre it’s banning in 1955, poor health was not even considered. Because it could be prescribed in it’s pure form by GP’s there were no of the side effects we see today. Extraordinarily the Times newspaper, a bastion of the British establishment ran a 1955 leader entitled, “The Case For Heroin”. Prescribed regularly for a variety of ailments including colds and diarrhoea the drug developed in 1874 had a grand total of 47 UK addicts in 1955. In the US where it had been banned in 1925, the Times reported that it had become, “a major social problem”. As with alcohol, as soon as the authorities moved to prohibition organised criminal gangs got involved. When this happens the product is dressed up as aspirational, hedonistic and appeals to risk taking behaviour. So instead of mild pain relief, the mind bending properties of the drug are emphasised.

Nowadays street heroin is cut with everything from sugar to bicarbonates and can induce heavy duty addiction. The impurities cause horrific side effects such as liver failure, limbs becoming rotten and the use of dirty needles helped fuel the rise of HIV and AIDS in the UK. But in 2011 the charity DrugScope appeared to back calls for GP’s to go back to prescribing pure heroin, “It can stabilise someone’s drug use, achieve positive health outcomes and reduce crime.”

In July 2011 the debate was reignited when it was revealed that some London doctors were prescribing pure heroin as a remedy for addicts. The BBC quoted, “It costs the NHS about £14,000 to maintain an addict on heroin for a year. This is dwarfed by the cost of crime users might otherwise commit. Experts have estimated an addict spends £45,000-a-year on average on street heroin.”

Which brings us neatly on to the next issue surrounding drugs, that of crime.

The Drug’s Policy Foundation (DPF) estimates that in 1971 there were around 5,000 problematic drug users in the UK. The Misuse of Drugs Act that was passed by the Heath Government that year saw the biggest move to prohibition yet. Collating accurate figures for today is a challenge for obvious reasons but in 2012 there were 197,110 people in contact with the NHS or other organisations regarding drug addiction. We can never be sure how many addicts are outside the system but a rule of thumb used by DrugScope suggests a doubling meaning nearly 400,000 have drug problems. The Drugs Policy Foundation concludes, “With no legal supply to meet this ballooning demand organised criminals and unregulated dealers have moved to exploit this profit opportunity with devastating effect.”

As with Prohibition era America the professional, organised criminals have moved in to milk a massive cash cow. The DPF estimates that the drug trade in the UK is worth a monumental £9 billion. Because of these vast rewards criminals are prepared to take risks and the police onslaught has little effect. Comparisons with the US are instructive. The Office of National Drug Control in the US published figures in 2010 that showed an annual spend of $28.3 billion by the authorities on suppressing drug abuse. America has 45 million addicts. The US has roughly a population four times that of the UK but has a a hundred fold more addicts per capita than the UK despite a far more aggressive prohibition policy.

Common sense dictates that prohibition, as with alcohol in the 1930’s US simply isn’t working. Our prisons prove this.

In December 2012 the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee reported that 70% of UK prisoners had taken drugs prior to being banged up. 51% percent reported drug dependency and 35% admitted injecting behaviour. This compared to 16% being alcohol dependent.

Because of the cost of maintaining a habit (£16,800 per annum according to figures from the NHS) is so crippling, and many addicts are on low incomes, they inevitably turn to crime. The main crimes committed are burglary and interestingly low level drug dealing. This benefits the main suppliers as it insulates them from the risks and the addicts/dealers are malleable due to their habit.

The New Labour Government produced a drug strategy in 1998 which looked a methods to crack the problem. Ten years on the charity Addaction reported that the annual cost to the economy from drug abuse via crime, NHS bills and the such like was £16 billion, or nearly double the cost of staging the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Drugs are a tough nut to crack. As we have seen prohibition simply isn’t working. Period. Crime overall is falling, but drug related crime remains stubbornly high. Drugs blight working class communities up and down the UK and and allows criminals to exploit the most vulnerable members of society. Working girls don’t go into the sex industry as a well thought out career move. Many, if not most are carrying a serious drug problem and may have been forced to work by their dealers as the only way to maintain their habit. In July 2013 DrugScope complained that there was poor Government research into the sex trade and drugs but concluded, “It can be difficult to access services that provide specialist support that addresses substance misuse in the context of ‘sex work’. We need more and better support from policy makers, planners and commissioners, and from services on the ground to help these women, many of whom have multiple and complex needs.”

One of Bill Clinton’s great mantras about politics goes something like this. You can have bad policy (lock up anyone caught with drugs and throw away the key) but it makes for great politics and garners votes. But in the long run it will come back to bite you. This appears to have been the approach both here and in the US where the phrase, “War on Drugs” is often bandied about.

So what actually happens when prohibition is lifted? Portugal attempted this bold strategy in 2001. All drug use, including crack and heroin was decriminalised in one fell swoop. This dramatic move was the result of years of trying, and failing with the same methods of prohibition, punishment and marginalisation of addicts that has formed drugs policy worldwide. Opponents argued that Portugal would become a druggy tourist destination conveniently forgetting that the wine industry was a major draw for visitors.

Anyone for Port?

Secondly, and this is important, decriminalisation is not, and never will be legalisation.

Instead it becomes a civil matter, rather than a criminal issue. The person caught using or possessing drugs is given 72 hours to make an appointment to see something known as The Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT). This body is made up of drug support workers and includes access to psychologists and other remedial health professionals. It is all conducted in an atmosphere of non judgement. Pragmatism trumps all other considerations. The law is framed thus; “Recognition of the human dignity of the people involved in the drug phenomenon and consequently an understanding of the complexity and the relevance of the individual, his/her family and background, as well as drug addiction as an illness and the consequent assumption of responsibility by the State in upholding drug addicts constitutional right to health and the avoidance of social exclusion.”

This is total departure and the ethos behind it was summed up by Dr. João Goulão, head of the radical CDT, “I really don’t care if people use drugs. I don’t want them to suffer from it.”

As socialists and democrats this is a brilliant way to approach problems in society and what the Labour Party is “for”. To protect the vulnerable and improve the lot of people on life without fear, favour or a rush to judgement.

The prohibitionists argue that decriminalisation will lead straight to hard drugs and all the associated problems. Portugal’s experiences negate that view. In 2012 the figures for those interacting with the CDT were thus. 76% resulted from cannabis use, heroin came in at 11% and cocaine users accounted for 6% of the figures. Hardly the dash for the hard stuff that was predicted.

A related study for the CDT showed a decrease in drug use amongst teenagers and concluded, “Young people often consume drugs as a way to rebel against authority and to declare independence. With decriminalization, these reasons to use drugs make little sense.”

In 2011 the worldwide respected Global Commission on Drugs (endorsed by luminaries such as Jimmy Carter) a 22 member body from across the world reached the following damning conclusion and vindicated Portugal’s decriminalisation policy, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” The report could not have been clearer citing, “Over four decades has not accomplished its goal of banishing drugs and has in fact spawned wide, dramatic eruptions of violence”

Labour must have the courage and self confidence of its values and convictions to grasp the nettle and propose good policy. In this case decriminalisation of drugs. It only become bad politics if you fail to master the argument. Radical and optimistic moves are called for on this issue, the question is, as with a lot of stuff surrounding the Labour Party, does Ed Miliband have the stomach to fight for what he believes in and tackle head on a difficult, yet key issue facing the UK today? What sets the agenda? Properly well thought out policy, or the Daily Mail?


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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