Pubdate: Wed, 16 Jan 2013
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2013 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Neil McKeganey
Note: Neil McKeganey is director of the Centre for Drug Misuse 
Research in Glasgow
Page: 26


National policies need to be about reducing the impact of illegal 
drugs on Scotland, not initiatives that could result in their wider 
use, writes Neil McKeganey

IN MONDAY'S report from the Westminster's all-parliamentary group on 
drug policy reform, we have what has become the latest in a long line 
of calls for the legalisation of illegal drugs. For the advocates of 
drugs legalisation, the arguments seem disarmingly familiar and 
persuasive: our drug laws have failed to stem the flow of illegal 
drug use; many of those substances that are currently illegal are 
less harmful than tobacco or alcohol and, therefore, we should pursue 
an approach that legalises these and other forms of drug use.

The trouble with this view is that it is almost entirely based on the 
premise that drug use under a legalised or regulated regime would not 
significantly increase. That is a bold assumption and one for which 
there is little evidence. The supporters of legalisation cite 
Portugal, where all drugs for personal use were decriminalised in 
2001. Troublingly, however, while some positive benefit has flowed 
from that policy change, drug use among young people in Portugal has 
increased rather than decreased and there remains a stubborn black 
market in drug supply within the country. Drugs decriminalisation 
does not appear to have been quite the rosy road of unbroken success 
that many might have wished and others have promoted.

But even if a plausible case can be made for the benefits of drugs 
decriminalisation, the timing now for such a bold policy change in 
the UK seems wrong. Most recent data from the UK is showing a marked 
reduction in almost all forms of illegal drugs use, with the 
exception of cocaine, which is rising.

We are recording lower levels of cannabis use, heroin use, LSD use 
than for decades. In the face of such reductions it would seem odd to 
implement a policy of decriminalisation or legalisation that would 
hold out the very real prospect over time, even if not immediately, 
of a marked increase in the levels of drugs consumption.

Those who favour drugs legalisation or decriminalisation often argue 
that a marked increase in drug use would be unlikely because most 
people who wish to use illegal drugs can do so already with minimum 
inconvenience. However, this is not to say that if the current legal 
impediments to such drug use were to be removed that there would be 
no increase in the number of people interested in at least 
experimenting with drugs, confident in the knowledge that they would 
be breaking no law in doing so. Would it matter if there were an 
increase in the number of people experimenting in this way with 
various substances?

The answer to that question really lies in the fact that many of the 
controlled substances are proscribed precisely because they are 
harmful (irrespective of whether they are more or less harmful than 
the legal drugs) or because we suspect they may be harmful but do not 
yet have the evidence to assess their precise level of harm, as is 
the case with many of the "legal high" drugs.

Any population level increase in the consumption of such drugs as 
LSD, heroin, or amphetamines would unquestionably lead to an increase 
in the number of individuals experiencing problems as a result of 
drug use. Some of those individuals would become addicted to the 
substances that have a high potential for addiction or become 
psychologically traumatised by those drugs that we know can cause 
major mental health problems.

That scenario would be less worrying if we had effective drug 
treatment services able speedily to lift people out of the depths of 
their addiction or psychological trauma. The reality is quite the 
reverse, with drug treatment services struggling to support 
individuals in their recovery and most people leaving drug treatment 
services in a continuing state of drug dependency. Recovery from drug 
dependency is a long, difficult and costly road that involves major 
heartache for the drug user and his or her family.

It is a great shame that so many of our influential leaders seem 
persuaded of the view that the best we can do in tackling our drug 
problem is to reduce some of the legal barriers to drug use. If we 
are to tackle our drug problem, we need effective drugs prevention, 
effective drugs treatment, but we also need effective drugs enforcement.

There is an analogy here that is rather revealing. We have made major 
inroads in the UK in reducing the overall level of smoking by a 
combination of public health education, social sanction and the 
banning of smoking in enclosed public spaces. Nobody should be under 
the illusion that the contribution of legislation in banning smoking 
was anything other than key in reducing the prevalence of smoking and 
reducing the overall level of tobacco-related harm.

It is ironic that just as we have come to see the benefit of 
combining education, treatment and legal sanction to reduce tobacco 
consumption, some of our leading parliamentarians seem convinced of 
the benefits of dismantling the legal barriers to wider drug use.

No country in the world has boldly discarded drugs enforcement and 
the UK would be unwise to go down such a road when we are beginning 
to see the success of our current tripartite approach combining 
treatment, prevention and drugs enforcement. We can do better in all 
of those spheres than at present, but that does not mean we should 
look to the government to become the major supplier or regulator of 
much wider forms of drugs consumption.

The all-parliamentary group has come up with another equally 
questionable proposal for dealing with the proliferation of so called 
legal high drugs, namely to make the producers and suppliers of those 
drugs subject to trading standards legislation within which they 
become legally responsible for the quality and safety of the drugs they supply.

I can see why the producers of those drugs might prefer operating 
under such a system, but could we possibly accept their assurances in 
terms of quality and safety, especially where those drugs are being 
produced in laboratories in distant parts of the world?

What would happen in all probability is that issues of safety would 
come a long way second to issues of profit in the manufacture and 
sale of those substances and we would see thousands of young people 
effectively being used as guinea pigs, consuming substances that they 
believe are relatively harmless and which we have legalised, but 
which in reality neither we nor they actually know what chemicals 
were even in the drugs they were consuming.

Drug use has taken a tremendous toll on Scotland  and continues to do 
so. We have communities that have effectively been taken over by the 
drugs economy.

Our aspirations and policies need to be about reducing the extent and 
the impact of illegal drugs on Scotland and not about pursuing 
initiatives that could easily result in their wider use.

Just as we have led the way in international efforts to reduce the 
availability and consumption of alcohol and tobacco, we need to be no 
less bold in our efforts to reduce the use and availability of all of 
the currently illegal drugs. Only then will Scotland be lifted from 
the shadow of a drugs problem that is substantially worse than 
virtually anywhere else in Europe.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom