16 October 2007

Alternative to Misuse of Drugs

Yesterday's controversial proposals to legalise all drugs, made in the thirty page report "Drugs Policy: A Radical Look Ahead?" by the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, have today received further support from a former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham: "I used to reckon that 80 per cent of those people received into prison were misusing a substance of some kind when they came in. The amount of acquisitive crime connected to drug abuse is immense. That is why there needs to be a new approach."

Of course, they are not alone in claiming that drugs policy has been based on "moralistic political rhetoric" rather than evidence. Earlier this year the independent UK Drug Policy Commission reported that both government education schemes and treatment of addicts have had little impact, while the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) suggested that UK drug law had been "driven by moral panic" and was "not fit for purpose." Indeed, the chief constable even quotes John Reid as acknowledging that "prohibition doesn't work" and the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, as conceding "it drives the activity underground."

Nevertheless, the Government and the likes of Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, have predictably dismissed the proposals. Yet, in calling for the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Mr Brunstrom is not calling for an "anarchic free-for-all," as some reports seem to suggest. Instead, he proposes replacing the current ABC classification for drugs with a new, scientifically-based "Hierarchy of Harm" including tobacco and alcohol, and decoupled from criminal penalties:

"Drugs and psychotropic substances are simply not going to go away as if by magic. And so, if drugs cannot be eradicated (and the evidence that they cannot is now overwhelming), then the principal object of public policy should be to reduce as far as possible the great harms that they can and do cause."
This is precisely the same as the index of harms classification system for drugs proposed by the Commons Science Select Committee last year and supported by the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy when it recommended replacing the Misuse of Drugs Act with a broader Misuse of Substances Act earlier this year. When we read statistics such as that the cost of alcohol and tobacco to the NHS in England is double that of all illegal drugs and that in Scotland in 2004, tobacco killed about 13,000 people and alcohol 2,052, while just 356 died from all other illegal drugs put together, Brunstrom is surely right to dismiss the ABC system as "indefensible, both legally and ethically" and "arbitrary, and subject to politically-motivated manipulation" and to call for a national debate on the issue, isn't he?Credit: BBC 'Drug classification rethink urged'