Pubdate: Sun, 05 Jun 2011
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2011 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Duncan Hamilton


THE war on drugs has failed. That is the stark and uncompromising 
conclusion of the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, which reported 
last week. The Commission, which comprises a stellar line-up of 
international leaders, argues it is time to accept that the "war" 
launched by President Nixon 40 years ago has been lost. Not only have 
the supply and consumption of illegal drugs continued to rise 
inexorably, but the social and financial costs for governments and 
families the world over demand radical new thinking.

This matters in Scotland. Our problems are statistically worse than 
England, Ireland, Finland or Denmark. We have pockets of extreme 
deprivation where drug abuse is most damaging. Our most commonly used 
drugs are cannabis (one in three of us will take it at some point), 
followed by cocaine and ecstasy, which are both also increasing in 
usage. We also face the problem of how to tackle the controlling hand 
of organised crime, and the global market which makes that task so 
hard. Up to 60,000 children in Scotland (one in 20) were estimated in 
2000 to experience a drug problem with one parent or more. The 
problem is international but the impact local, and often deeply personal.

Remember too that the cost of "problem" drug use every year in 
Scotland is UKP2.6 billion. In these financially troubled times, 
that's a big number.

The Scottish Government launched a new strategy in 2008 with the 
emphasis on recovery - in other words, giving those with a drug 
problem the tools to break the cycle of decline. That strategy 
contains an impressively holistic approach, looking at everything 
from the Curriculum for Excellence in schools to job creation and 
service provision.

But as useful as all of that is, this new report is dealing with 
matters on a much bigger stage. This is about challenging the whole 
concept of criminalising those who use drugs. It is about accepting 
that drug use is a permanent feature of our 21st-century world and 
therefore trying to deal with the worst aspects of that through a 
more realistic approach. "Zero tolerance" now has zero relevance.

Instead, the principle urged upon the international community is of 
ending the criminalisation of those who use drugs but do no harm to 
others. The Commission produces evidence that the costs - social and 
financial - of incarcerating millions of people are massive, and does 
nothing to restrict or reduce the flow of drugs. It argues that 
turning a blind eye and focusing those resources elsewhere is now the 
imperative. Bold stuff.

But there's more: the Commission wants governments to experiment with 
different models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine organised 
crime, particularly as regards cannabis.

It also wants to offer a greater variety of treatment - not just 
methadone but heroin-assisted treatment programmes such as those used 
in Canada.

For many, these proposals will be offensive. They will provoke anger. 
They will draw accusations of raising the white flag and of weakness. 
Governments around the world have already rushed to condemn. But in 
doing so they make the Commission's point entirely. The problem 
around the world is precisely that lack of thought. There is no 
honesty and no desire to challenge the orthodoxy which has so palpably failed.

Some of the examples cited by the Commission must give pause for 
reflection. For example, what about the heroin substitution programme 
in Switzerland which reduced property crime by 90 per cent? Or the 
approach to medically prescribed heroin in the Netherlands which has 
delivered the lowest percentage of people who inject heroin in the 
EU? What do we think about the reduction of heroin use in Portugal 
after the controversial decriminalisation of the use and possession 
of all illicit drugs in 2001? Each of those is deeply controversial, 
but aren't any worth a second look?

The serious response is to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by this 
Commission and to start from first principles working our way through 
the legal and moral maze. Do we accept that there will always be a 
market for illegal drugs, and if so, why is it wrong to seek to 
regulate that in an effort to protect users and diminish the power 
and wealth of organised crime? What in that new landscape are the big 
public policy objectives? Should we legalise all drugs, and if not, 
which ones and why? That's the real debate, so why can't we have it?

Mainly the silence is because this issue is a guaranteed vote loser 
which brings only the certainty of dividing opinion. Remember Dr 
David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser sacked for daring to 
think outside the box? Or what about the hurried reversal by New 
Labour of a decision to reclassify cannabis to a class C drug? This 
timidity has to end - it is simply offensive that the failure of our 
drugs policy over generations has become a no-go area of radical debate.

In Scotland, of course, we have the added anomaly of Holyrood 
controlling policing, criminal justice and the courts (which allowed 
previous successful initiatives such as drug courts) but not drug 
classification and regulation of offences and penalties. Clearly that 
must change.

Much less clear is whether any future Scottish Government would use 
new powers to challenge some of the old certainties which have failed 
too many for too long. It's time for the war on drugs to become a 
battle of ideas.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom