The findings of the UK Drug Policy Commission, following a six year study, might have been branded ‘controversial’ by the ever reasonable Daily Mail after they were published last week, but the ears of people on both sides of the fence when it comes to drug decriminalisation should've perked up at the noises the group were making. The study has, in my opinion, gone some way to decidedly swinging the debate in favour of those who have been calling for some drugs (with cannabis being the main focus) to become decriminalised - the most important thing it has done is to highlight the need for more scientific evidence to shed light on what is a contentious issue.
We can, I think, learn a lot from the recommendations provided by the UKDPC. This debate shouldn’t be about two groups shouting at each other about abstract values, as it often is, but reasoned arguments based on evidence. The study gives those that support the criminalisation of drugs food for thought by concluding that relaxing laws for the possession of a small amount of controlled drugs would not significantly increase drug usage. This, in my eyes, decapitates the main argument that those supporting the present-day policies have previously relied on. If decriminalisation would not increase drug use, then it's hard to pinpoint any negative impacts it would have, as any you can imagine would already be covered by the illegal use of drugs in the current system. Thus, if we can say anything positive about it at all (which I’m sure we can), then it would seem sensible to go ahead and implement it.
Having said that, the study should also remind those who support decriminalisation (myself included) that drugs are in fact a real problem. This may seem like a needless statement but I often get the feeling that we talk about this issue simply in abstract values: words like liberty and freedom are constantly bandied around without a clear focus on the issue at hand. If drugs only harmed the person taking them, the story would be completely different as, we would surely say, a person has a right to control the substances that they put into their own bodies and the question is purely about individual liberty. However, the fact that drugs can and do cause significant harm to those surrounding drug users and abusers (in many ways) means that imposing ‘civil penalties’ for possession of drugs, as suggested by the UKDPC, becomes a somewhat attractive option in some cases.
The group recommends that these ‘civil penalties’ take the form of attendance at drug awareness sessions or referral to a drug treatment programme. For long-term drugs users and addicts, this would be very productive indeed, both for the individual and the society. Imposing criminal sanctions is clearly not working, and neither, I believe, will taking a completely hands-off approach to those who clearly need help – those who are harming themselves and others. These penalties run the risk of being too touchy feely, of course, and they may have to (in a lot of cases) morph in to full on rehab, which would only come at a cost. This is money that could arguably be raised, however, through taxation as part of the same move.
Studies like this are a big, evidence based step in the right direction, and the fact that this particular one has been dismissed so readily is worrying.
However, even these ‘civil penalties’ immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head, and I’m unclear on why exactly the UKDPC endorses them (save for the examples mentioned in the last paragraph). If you’re an irregular cannabis user who fully understands the impacts of drugs on your body, then I'm not sure what the point of these penalties would be. If someone is not harming others through their drug taking, then this proposed scheme just looks like a giant waste of time and money. Why, for those who take drugs responsibly, should there be any penalties at all?
The intricacies are, as always, open for discussion but one fact that is concrete is that a change is needed – and the politicians know it. Over ¾ of MPs think that the current policies are ineffective at tackling drug problems in the UK. So surely this study, which lays out specific recommendations for policy changes, couldn’t have come at a better time! Right? Well, no. Not according to the Home Office, who have essentially treated this study like a primary school science project. Sure, they ‘welcomed’ the study, but were quick to dismiss it, saying ‘We remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs – outlined in our Drugs Strategy – is the right one.’ Well, so much for all that hard work.
What exactly needs to happen before we can get an open debate on this matter into parliament? Don’t think that messages the likes of which the UKDPC are professing have no support amongst MPs. In fact, 31% believe that the government should consider relaxing the law, meaning possession of small amounts of controlled drugs would no longer be a criminal offence. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the big political hitters are willing to step up to the plate and call for a transparent political discussion.
Studies like this are a big, evidence based step in the right direction, and the fact that this particular one has been dismissed so readily is worrying. This is an important issue: it's one that nearly everyone (including politicians) has strong opinions about and so the introduction of scientific studies into the mix should be welcomed with open arms. However, before they become useful we need to see a commitment from those who can make a difference that they're actually going to pay attention, and that the work of a group such as the UKDPC will not be redundant.
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