Drugs: A Hard or Soft Approach?

Ben Mitchell argues that drugs should not be legalised.

In the UK, the social and economic costs of drug misuse account for between £10 billion and £18 billion a year. Around 250000 problematic drug users’ contribute to 99% of these costs.1 These addicts spend around £16,500 a year each to feed their habits, with most of this coming from the proceeds of crime2. Hard drug users, who indulge in heroin, crack cocaine and powder cocaine, are responsible for 50% of all crimes3.

On the one side, them are proponents of ‘harm reduction’. In the case of heroin, they want to see persistent users prescribed heroin under the NHS.

Opponents compare the Dutch and Swedish approach to drugs over the last 25 years, and point out that drug use in the Netherlands, which has adopted a policy of ‘harm reduction, has seen use of cannabis amongst the young more than double, with use of ecstasy and cocaine by l5 year olds rising significantly.

By contrast, in Sweden, the goal has been to create a ‘drugs free society,’ with everyone from the police to schools working towards such a strategy. As a result, overall lifetime prevalence of drug abuse, amongst 15-16 year-olds. is 8% in Sweden, compared to 29% in the Netherlands. In 1998, only 496kg of cannabis were seized in Sweden, compared to 118 in the Netherlands, now described as the drugs capital of Western Europe5 . This is because in Sweden drug use is seen as inimical to a civilised, tolerant society, whereas in the Netherlands drugs have been accepted as a ‘way of life’ and have contributed hugely to crime.

The UK’s approach to drugs is deeply flawed. with the government sending out confusing and misleading messages. Cannabis has been downgraded from a class B to class C drug; yet many people widely believe that cannabis has been decriminalised.

The ‘Lambeth Experiment’, which led the way to reclassification, caused an explosion in the number of drug dealers preying upon the area6. The experiment has to all intents and purposes ‘allowed’ people to smoke cannabis publicly. But, the moral and ethical question still remains: is it acceptable to tolerate something which is proven to damage both the health and judgement of individuals, and can also affect relationships with families, friends and the wider society?

There are now several experiments being conducted across Europe in an effort to contain heroin addiction. In Switzerland, since 1994, 1,000 of the country’s 33 heroin addicts have been prescribed pure heroin. The aim is to stabilise the health of addicts and prevent them from using heroin in public, thus taking their habit away from the black market.

Swiss officials claim that the experiment is working because crime is down, However, addicts are now becoming dependent on prescription heroin and hopes of weaning them off the substance have quickly faded.

The Police Federation disputes that legalisation would cut crime. This assumes that the powerful international drug cartels would simply fade away into the night. More likely scenarios are that they would fight to maintain their lucrative street trading.

Notes
1. The Government Reply to the Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee Session 2001-02: The Government Drug Policy: Is it working?, p.5
2. Home Affairs Third Report: The Government Drug Policy. Is it working?, Illegal Drugs, Drugs-related property crime. no.36 3.The Government Reply to the Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee session 2001-02: The Government Drug Policy. Is it working?, p.5
4 .Home Affairs Select Committee Report: The Government Drug Policy. Is it Working? Memoranda of Evidence – no.16 (submitted by the Criminal Justice Association)
5. Risk of Legalising Cannabis Underestimated: A Comparison of Dutch and Swedish Drug Policy. Criminal Justice Association, February 2002
6. The Dealers Think They’re Untouchable Now’, The Observer, 24 February 2002 and ‘London’s Drug Crime Hotspots Revealed. Evening Standard. 28 May 2003
7. Better Ways’. The Economist, 26 July 2001
8. Quoted in Home Affairs Select Committee Third Report: The Government ‘s Drugs Policy. Is Working’., no.60

Source: CIVITAS; Institute for the Study of Civil Society
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