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Casey Stengel
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"A man is either free or not. There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedom."
Imamu Amiri Baraka

Policy Reform FAQ

Courtesy Transform - Working for an effective drug policy

Drug policy reform is often controversial and misunderstandings are rife. This FAQ attempts to address some of the most frequently raised concerns and most commonly repeated misunderstandings.

  1. Won't drug use increase if we legalised drugs?

  2. Shouldn't we keep drugs illegal to protect children?

  3. Wouldn't drug law reform "send out the wrong message"?

  4. With so many people being harmed by drug misuse isn't reforming the drug laws irresponsible?

  5. We have so many problems with alcohol and tobacco already. Why add other drugs?

  6. Didn't they try legalisation in Europe with needle park and it didn't work?

  7. What is the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation?

Q1. Won't drug use increase if we legalised drugs?

Evidence suggests that a drugs legal status only has a very marginal impact on levels of drug use and that cultural and health factors are far more important.

"There is no direct relationship we can see between a specific policy on drugs and the level of drug use in a country. Personally I doubt there would be much increase in drug use as a result of decriminalisation"

Richard Hartnoll, head of the EU European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction's (EMCDDA) drugs epidemiology department.
(Independent on Sunday 25 Nov '01)

It is also important to make the distinction between drug use and misuse. The majority of drug use is not problematic to the user or those around them. Government's focus ought to be on those who misuse rather non problematic users.

Even if drug use did increase under legalisation it would be qualitatively different, and not necessarily equate to a rise in misuse. If drugs are available through legal channels they can have regulated production and supply, and come with appropriate information about effects and health risks. It is likely that such drugs would therefore be safer, meaning less misuse and less drugs deaths. Any possible rise in drug use needs to be weighed up against these benefits, as well as massive crime reduction, massive tax revenues to the treasury (which could be redirected into drug treatment and education), reduced social exclusion, reduced HIV transmission and so on.

Comparative studies compiled by the EMCDDA show that the UK has the highest level of illegal drug users in Europe despite having amongst the harshest enforcement regimes. The UK even has a higher level of cannabis use than the Netherlands, where its sale and consumption in licensed cafes is tolerated. Whilst such international comparisons are problematic and the results sometimes contradictory there does not seem to be any strong causal link between the levels of drug use and the legal drug control measures adopted by different countries. In Australia and the US differences in cannabis enforcement regimes between different states have not led to corresponding differences in prevalence, which remain constant across the country.

There are essentially two key ways to significantly reduce drug misuse in the long term. Firstly by addressing the underlying issues of social, economic and emotional deprivation that lead young people to misuse drugs in the first place. Secondly through properly funded drug treatment services and quality public education to encourage individuals to make responsible choices.

Q2. Shouldn't we keep drugs illegal to protect children?

We all agree that children must be protected from drug misuse. However the question must be asked whether current policy is doing this effectively. According to Drugscope use of illegal drugs has increased eightfold among 15 year olds in the last 10 years and fivefold among 12 year olds. It is because of these obvious failures that Transform is looking for a more effective solution.

In this context it is worth asking whether children are going to be better protected from the potential dangers of drugs if:
a) The market is legally controlled and regulated by the state or,
b) The market is controlled by organised crime and unregulated street dealers?

Legalisation is not a cure-all. It will not stop young people using drugs, or put an end to addiction and drug deaths. What it will do is mean that there is some control over availability to children rather than none. Police resources will be freed up to focus enforcement on illegal dealers selling to children.

In 1930's USA the campaign to end prohibition and legalise alcohol was led by Mothers under the slogans "save our children" and "protect our youth". They understood that illegal drug production increases the risks involved with use and also creates a new set of risks for young people in the form of a criminal led and often violent illegal market. Drug prohibition today is no different.

Q3. Wouldn't drug law reform "send out the wrong message"?

This has now become the stock response from the government when the issue of drug law reform is raised. What it reveals is that there is such an absence of real evidence to defend current drug policy that the government have to resort to this sort of emotive and rather meaningless sound bite.

Laws and regulations are not designed to "send messages". This is the role of parents, families, schools, churches, public education and other social institutions. Laws exist to protect people from crime. When homosexuality and suicide were legalised it was because such laws were counterproductive and clearly not appropriate. It had nothing to do with "sending out messages".

Is there a shred of evidence that police enforcement is really the best way of communicating public health messages to young people? There is no evidence that the drug laws have any significant deterrent effect. In reality the drug laws alienate and marginalise millions of young people who cannot understand why they are being criminalised. They feel persecuted by the very institutions that are supposed to be protecting them and can consequently loose respect and trust for the police and the criminal justice system generally.

We should also ask, what message is "given out" by current policy and the disastrous situation that it has created? It is one of stubbornly ignoring overwhelming evidence, hypocrisy, intolerance, and a lack of concern for public health. Reform sends out a message of social inclusion, tolerance, pragmatism, and compassion.

Q4. With so many people being harmed by drug misuse isn't reforming the drug laws irresponsible?

The fact that people still become victims of drug misuse is more evidence of how current policy has failed them and their families. The 'war on drugs' pours huge resources into counterproductive law enforcement initiatives whilst treatment and help services for those in need remain chronically under-funded.

Half of the drug overdose deaths in Europe each year take place in the UK.

Problem drug users are not helped by criminalisation or imprisonment, which only makes getting their lives back on track even more difficult. People with drug problems are often unwilling to seek help because they fear arrest, or being thrown out of work or school.

An unregulated illegal market means that drugs are even more dangerous than they would otherwise be. There are no controls over strength or purity and they are sold with no information on minimising potential risks. It is precisely because drugs are dangerous that Transform believe they should be brought under effective state regulation and control rather than being sold on the streets by unregulated street dealers.

Drug law reform is not a cure all and will not eliminate drug misuse. But it will allow people with problems to receive the help they need rather than have their problems made worse. This means dealing with problem drug misuse as a medical and social issue rather than a criminal justice one.

Q5. We have so many problems with alcohol and tobacco already. Why add other drugs?

The fact is that 'other drugs' are here already, they are just being used by 'other people'. To put this into perspective there are 5 million cannabis users in the UK, and 2 million ecstasy tablets are consumed every weekend. The fact that some drugs are strictly prohibited whilst others are legally available is a historical quirk and has nothing to do with relative harm. This illogical distinction criminalises millions in a way that is both unjust and indiscriminate.
There are, of course, enormous problems associated with alcohol and tobacco but at least these are not compounded by an illegal market. We only have to think back to Al Capone's era to see what that would be like.

At the root of the problem with alcohol and tobacco is the untold millions spent on aggressive marketing campaigns to recruit new consumers for their products. This marketing is often targeted specifically at young people. It is remarkable that successive Governments have called for the menace of drugs to be fought with all that we can muster and yet allow sports and music events to advertise the drugs that kill and ruin the lives of tens of thousands, namely alcohol and tobacco. (Imagine the Ecstasy World Snooker Competition!)
Once currently illegal drugs are brought back into the legal economy we will have the opportunity to introduce appropriate controls over how they are produced, distributed, and promoted. This is impossible in the context of an illegal market.

Q6. Didn't they try legalisation in Europe with 'needle park' and it didn't work?

Mainland Europe, in general, has a far more compassionate and pragmatic approach to managing drug use and misuse than the UK (see Transform's briefing on Drug policy reform across Europe for details). Much of mainland Europe, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Holland, has effectively decriminalised personal possession of all drugs. Even the traditionally conservative Belgium has recently decriminalised cannabis. By all accounts this approach is proving more effective than the current UK policy.

No countries in Europe have so far fully legalised the production and sale of any drugs due to their obligations under UN conventions signed decades ago. However, both the Swiss and Dutch parliaments are set to fully legalise cannabis in the near future.

The experiment with 'needle park' in Zurich, was a well intentioned attempt to contain the problem of street drug injectors within a specific area, in this case a particular park. When this project failed (the park became chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable) it was stopped and led to renewed efforts to find effective ways to address the problems of injecting drug users. Since then Switzerland has developed a heroin prescribing policy where long term addicts who have failed in other treatment programmes receive injectable heroin under supervised conditions. They also receive medical assistance and other help and training to help them re-establish their lives. The impact of this policy has been remarkable:

Out of context references to needle park give a grossly distorted picture of Swiss drug policy.

UK addicts are still pushed to commit property crime in order to buy dirty heroin at over inflated street prices. They do, however, have legal access to clean injecting equipment due to a brief burst of pragmatism during the 80's in response to the HIV crisis.

In Holland, where heroin can be prescribed and treatment is well funded, the average age of heroin users in 39 and rising. In the UK it is 25 and actually falling. The UK also has the highest overall level of drug use in Europe and the amongst the harshest drug law enforcement. The UK accounts for half of European overdose deaths. It is clear that we have a lot to learn from our European neighbours, and Transform is actively promoting the exchange of information on best practise in drug policy between different countries.

Q7. What is the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation?

These terms are regularly confused and often used inter-changeably by the media, rather muddling the debate. In simple terms decriminalisation refers only to the laws regarding personal possession and use of illegal drugs. Under decriminalisation the supply of drugs remains illegal and consequently in the hands of criminal networks. Legalisation refers to introducing an appropriate legal framework for drug production, supply and use.
The popular understanding is that legalisation means removing all controls over the sale and use of drugs. In reality it would involve bringing strict legal regulation and control to a market that currently has none whatsoever (i.e. organised crime/ street dealers). Legal frameworks already exist to oversee the regulation of currently legal drugs and medicines that incorporate varying levels of control for their use.

These include;

In this respect any misunderstanding suggesting legalisation is "relaxing" or "liberalising" the drug laws is wholly incorrect. It actually involves bringing strictly enforced state regulation into an arena where currently there is none.

"De facto decriminalisation" is where decriminalisation occurs in practise without the law necessarily being removed or changed. This can happen by:

  1. Making personal possession a civil rather than criminal offence. This makes it non- arrestable, possibly incurring a fine but not a criminal record, as is the case in Spain and Italy.
  2. Leaving the laws on the books and but just not enforcing them, as is the case in the Netherlands.
  3. Reclassifying drugs from Class A or B to Class C, making possession non- arrestable, and de-prioritising it for police enforcement. This is the option Government is proposing for cannabis.

Decriminalisation is a contradictory position because it implies that it is not criminal to use a drug but does not allow a legal channel for obtaining it. This plays into the hands of criminal supply networks. Decriminalisation only deals with half of the problems of prohibition and can therefore only ever be a temporary step on the way to full legalisation.

For more information visit Transform