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Home Affairs Committee report on drugs shows the 'hollowness' of current UK drug policy

Professor Alex Stevens, an expert at the University in illicit drugs policy, suggests the Home Affairs Committee report, released 10 December, reinforces the need for a reconsideration of both domestic and international drugs laws.

He commented: 'For years, the Home Office has been responding with the same line whenever it is asked about decriminalising drugs: Drugs are illegal because they are harmful - they destroy lives and blight communities. This phrase made its latest appearance in the government's response to press coverage of the Home Affairs Select Committee's new report on drug policy. But this report shows, once again, the emptiness of the Home Office line.

‘Nobody doubts that illegal drugs - like the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco - can be harmful. The question is what to do to reduce these harms. When drugs damage health and communities, this is often because consumers can only use drugs in ways that are unsafe, and because prohibition has put the drug trade in the hands of unregulated criminals.

'One solution may be to decriminalise drug possession. Where this has been tried, as in Portugal and the Netherlands, it has been followed by reductions in drug related harms - including deaths and HIV infections - and has reduced the flow of young people into the most problematic patterns of drug use.

'The Home Office refuses to countenance such measures. It assumes, without producing any evidence, that keeping drugs illegal reduces their harms. But the Home Affairs Committee has shown up the hollowness of this claim. It refers to the continued reduction in cannabis use, even after it was classified downwards in 2004 from class B to class C of the Misuse of Drugs Act. It also refers to Portugal, where possession of all drugs - not just cannabis - was decriminalised in 2001. As I have shown in research articles (written with Dr Caitlin Hughes), the feared boom in drug use and drug tourism never happened. Even the police and conservative politicians in Portugal now support decriminalisation.

'But decriminalisation cannot solve all the problems related to drugs, for two reasons. One is that it leaves the production and supply of drugs in the hands of gangsters who have huge financial incentives to use violence and corruption to control this lucrative trade. The tragic effects of this are being felt most severely in Mexico, where thousands have died in the ongoing drug wars.

‘The second reason is that the harms of drugs are linked not only to the chemistry and prohibition of drugs, but also to social inequality. As I show in my book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health (Routledge, 2011), illicit drugs are used more by wealthy adults than by the poor. But it is the poor who suffer most from drug dependence and death. Countries with more generous welfare states than ours tend to have lower rates of injecting drug use and lower rates of use by 15 year olds.

'It is vital that we fundamentally re-examine domestic and international drug policies, as the Home Affairs Committee recommends. But we also need to consider how to break the link between poverty, drug dependence and other harms.'

Professor Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice at the University's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.


Story published at 10:34am 10 December 2012

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