Socialist Worker

Drugs and the law

Issue No. 1691

What do socialists say?

Drugs and the law

By Kevin Ovenden

"We increasingly incline to the view that the banning of all drugs causes more harm than good."

  • Daily Telegraph, 30 March

"Despite this paper's instinctive reservations over a more relaxed approach to drugs, we believe that the issue deserves mature and rational national debate."

  • Daily Mail, 29 March

"The sizeable community who use soft drugs recreationally want a change in the law which reflects what is happening at social gatherings every night of the week. It is dismal that this reality carries no weight with the government and its disappointing drugs tsar."

  • Police Review, 31 March

THOSE WERE some of the press reactions to a report by the Police Foundation last week on changing Britain's drug laws. The report recognised that the Tory and New Labour policy of further criminalising drugs has failed to stop people taking them.

As the quotes above show, even sections of the right wing press are prepared to consider its calls for lighter penalties for the use of certain drugs. That makes the New Labour government's response staggering. A Downing Street spokesperson said, "To say the chance of reform happening is minimal would be an exaggeration."

The Police Foundation inquiry supports the research of every group of experts. It quotes the doctors' BMA organisation saying, "The acute toxicity of cannabinoids [cannabis] is extremely low: they are very safe drugs and no deaths have been directly attributed to their recreational or therapeutic use." The biggest risk from taking cannabis comes from smoking the tobacco it is mixed with. Over 120,000 people die in Britain every year from tobacco-related diseases. Yet tobacco is legal and cannabis is not. Over 80,000 people were convicted last year for possession of cannabis and some 400 were jailed.

The report stops short of calling for the legalisation of cannabis. But it wants to make possessing it no longer an imprisonable offence. The police in Holland do not prosecute people with small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Jack Straw claims that such a policy leads to spiralling cannabis use and people "graduating to harder drugs such as heroin". Yet the report found that cannabis use in Holland is "consistently lower than in the United Kingdom" and that "young people are far less likely in Holland than elsewhere to experiment with heroin".

It continues, "Drug-related deaths per million population [in Holland] are the lowest in Europe. In 1995 the figure was 2.4 as against 31.1 for the United Kingdom." The British government spends 62 percent of its drugs budget on arresting and enforcing the law, mainly against cannabis users. It spends just 13 percent on treatment for those addicted to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Home secretary Jack Straw is willing to devote tens of millions of pounds to criminalising 80,000 cannabis users a year, including those who take it for relief from the effects of multiple sclerosis and other painful conditions. At the same time he offers little help to thousands of people driven to such despair that they become dependent on hard drugs-which truly can damage health. The Police Foundation report acknowledges that the pressures of unemployment, increasing stress at work, and so on drive people to escape this reality through drugs. It offers no answer to those pressures.

It does endorse some policies which in other countries today, or in Britain in the past, have helped control hard drug use. For example, GPs in Britain could prescribe drugs for addicts until the late 1960s. That limited the scope for big-time drug dealers, and helped people dependent on drugs to control their use and get off them. But these proven approaches would be swallowed up if the main thrust of the report was implemented.

It argues to refocus the repressive machinery that has failed to stem drug use in general onto targeting hard drugs. But the people who end up in prison, where drug use is rife, will not be the bosses of organised drugs syndicates. As in the US, they will be some of the most desperate people in society. The police and prisons cannot tackle dangerous drug use. The NHS and social services can help-if they have the resources and provided drug users are not treated as dangerous criminals. Shifting resources and changing the law in that way would be part of transforming society as a whole so that the misery that pushes people towards drugs could be eradicated.


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Sat 8 Apr 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1691
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