Nick Clegg’s declaration last week that UK drugs policy was ‘idiotic’ merited far more attention than it received. The Lib Dems have announced to take steps towards treating addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one and to decriminalise personal possession of drugs – both of which are sensible and well thought-out ideas. In this modern political era of Coalition and increasing plurality, this announcement is especially important, particularly since the Liberal Democrats may hold the balance of power in the next General Election.
Under Tony Blair’s government, the Labour party embraced authoritarianism in policing and maintained the flawed drug policy that remains the consensus between our main political parties today. This policy, dictating that drug-takers should be imprisoned in order to help deal with their drug habit, would be entirely laughable were it not causing such harm to our society. The reality is that the cycle of drug use, imprisonment and unemployment (either due to a criminal record or health issues from addiction) is damaging not only to the individual but to society as a whole. This cycle can only be broken by countering the root of the problem: addiction.
The evidence is becoming increasingly clear regarding the best way to deal with drug addiction. Even small shifts towards more ‘liberal’ policy, such as drug courts, where offenders are given intensive support with the threat of imprisonment (for failing mandatory drug tests or for failing to engage with the process) may yield substantial benefits. Policy Exchange, for example, has recently reported that this measure has saved approximately $3 in criminal justice costs for every $1 invested in the United States. The traditional methods of countering drug use are increasingly outdated and rely on punitive, rather than rehabilitative measures. The Labour Party should address this with a policy that is genuinely transformative, with clear and persuasive arguments in its favour.
Labour must adopt a policy of decriminalisation before the 2015 General Election. It is important to stress that this is not the same as legalisation, although the terms are often confused. Legalisation is the system whereby the state regulates the sale of drugs, but neither producers, consumers nor importers are committing a crime. Decriminalisation differs, in that the sale of drugs remains illegal, but users and those caught in possession of drugs are not imprisoned and are rarely prosecuted. While legalisation may be seen by some as the ultimate solution to the UK’s drugs problem, gradual progression in this policy area is considerably more likely since many voters will find the idea of legalising drugs unpalatable.
Decriminalisation prevents the unnecessary imprisonment of individuals who cause far greater harm to themselves than to others. Addiction cannot be treated by imprisonment, partly because the boredom and apathy that often leads to drug use is often intensified in this environment. Furthermore, decriminalisation allows governments to shift resources away from prosecution and towards treatment. The benefits of decriminalisation are numerous. Decriminalisation would diminish the workload for police officers; reduce the number of minor cases that waste time and money for public defenders; lower the pressure on expensive prison places and cut the demand for expensive resources in the fight against drugs. Money would therefore become available to rehabilitation centres and intensive treatment centres that would prevent addiction rather than intensify it.
Decriminalisation would also empower the government to prosecute and break-up drugs networks on a larger scale. By continuing to criminalise suppliers and importers, this would ensure that police are able to focus their efforts on those causing the greatest harm to British society. These are the individuals who fund criminal gangs and therefore these are the individuals that should be targeted. In the longer term, this greater focus on suppliers may be one of the few possible methods of eliminating (or at least severely hampering) the UK drugs trade; a trade that has endured and even thrived through decades of criminalisation.
Policy lessons for Labour
If Ed Miliband wishes to remain tough on spending in order to demonstrate economic credibility then he will need to find alternative sources of revenue to help diminish further austerity. While this article has outlined many practical reasons for decriminalisation, the savings generated from this move would also allow the Labour party to divert money from drug criminalisation towards spending on education and health.
However, the most important point that any politician must make is that drug decriminalisation does not translate into condoning drug use. Decriminalisation is concerned with dealing with drug addiction: it is about ‘prevention not detention’, a phrase that appropriately sums-up the reason for supporting decriminalisation as a device for countering the use of dangerous drugs in modern society.
Sensible policymaking should endeavour to find the most efficient and effective solutions to the greatest problems that we face today. The reality is that modern drugs policy is ‘idiotic’; it causes considerable harm to society and to those affected by addiction – and by extension anyone who comes into contact with them.