“The objective of drug policy is surely to discourage people from taking substances detrimental to their health. In that regard, it has failed dismally.”
Being a duty solicitor at court can be one of the most stressful things you do in your career; doing a long list in your local magistrates’ court, of duty clients, perhaps with one or two own clients thrown in. This means getting papers and talking to the CPS lawyer, perusing those papers, advising clients, and representing half a dozen in a couple of hours. It is an underestimated skill set that demands succinct advocacy, razor-sharp analysis and immediate rapport with clients, who are often vulnerable and disoriented.
Yet as I think back, I would find maybe 75 per cent of a list would be connected, in one form or another, to one issue: drugs. Possession or shoplifting to fund drug habits would form the basis of case after case; defendants returning time after time, often having just been released from prison. How many of us have seen a client with over 100 convictions appear yet again on a shoplifting charge?
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster. The objective of drug policy is surely to discourage people from taking substances that are detrimental to their health. In that regard, it has failed dismally. Tougher laws do not mean that fewer people take drugs. Indeed, in October 2014, the Home Office produced Drugs: international comparators, looking at the current trend for decriminalisation in a number of countries. The report said its ‘fact-finding [did not] observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country’ (p47).
So criminalisation fails in its primary objective. The cost, though, is immense. Huge resources are wasted in pursuing this dead duck of a policy and the reason is that no policy-maker or politician wants to be accused of being soft on crime. This is an abject failure of evidence-based policy-making. Spending huge amounts of money to fail in your objective, because you are not brave enough to have a debate, is bad; spending it to make things worse is unforgivable.
Release, the drugs and human rights charity, has produced a series of reports about the effect of criminalisation. Included in one such report (The numbers in black and white: ethnic disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales, 2013) is the stark conclusion that the enforcement of drugs laws is unfairly focused on black and Asian communities despite their rates of drug use being lower than the white majority. Black people were stopped and searched at 6.3 times the rate of white people while Asian people were stopped and searched at 2.5 times the rate of white people. Even more disturbing, 78 per cent of black people in London caught with cocaine were charged compared with 44 per cent of white people.
Things are beginning to change internationally. In countries that have adopted some form of decriminalisation, such as Portugal, considerable health benefits have been found. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, meanwhile, condemned the outcome of the UN General Assembly’s April 2016 special session on drugs, in which prohibition-based policy is set to continue. Countries where civic society has been completely destroyed in the war on drugs – Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala – are leading the charge for an alternative approach.
In the UK, the debate has been stifled. No change is on the horizon. We need politicians to take up the challenge. We could do with a young backbencher, such as a young Tory MP who criticised the then Labour government in 2002 in a House of Commons debate: ‘I ask the Labour government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried and we all know that it does not work.’ As a member of the home affairs select committee on drug misuse, he supported a recommendation to consider ‘the possibility of legalisation and regulation’ of drugs.
We need that challenge again. Duty solicitors, probation officers, family support workers and charities will talk about the futility of the current laws. Decriminalisation is not a panacea but we have to start looking at drugs as a health issue and we need a proper debate. Oh … and the young Tory MP? That would be David Cameron. ■