Our politicians need to frame a drugs policy that actually works


in Global Policy News

By Colette Browne

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

WHAT do David Cameron, Barack Obama and Leo Varadkar have in common?

All three have admitted to smoking cannabis. The Transport Minister made his admission a number of years ago in one of those cringey Hot Press interviews so beloved of politicians desperate to get down with the kids.

He is not alone. Many high-profile politicians, like “Biffo Spliffo” before him, readily admit to smoking cannabis in their debauched student days but very few, once in government and in a position to influence drug policy, will countenance its decriminalisation.

While Mr Varadkar escaped his youthful indiscretion with nothing more damaging to his reputation than a lava lamp and a collection of dodgy trance music, thousands of other people in this country, disproportionately young men, end up with criminal convictions that can have disastrous consequences for their work and travel opportunities.

If Mr Varadkar had been arrested and convicted of a drug offence all of those years ago then chances are he would not be a mnister today and would certainly not be tipped as a future Fine Gael leader.

Others have not been so lucky. Convictions, for possession of drugs for personal use, increased by 177%, from 7,138 to 12,679, between 2004 and 2011, while convictions for the cultivation of drugs, mainly cannabis, skyrocketed by over 1,500%, from 38 to 580, in the same period.

Politicians, fearful of appearing soft on drugs, are loathe to admit it, but the demonstrable truth is that the war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster that has succeeded only in enriching criminals, diverting money from public services and stigmatising users.

While billions of euro are funnelled into a black hole of ineffectual enforcement measures, that absorb thousands of hours of Garda time and overwhelm under-resourced court and prison services, treatment and support facilities are hugely oversubscribed, or simply non-existent in many areas of the country.

This is despite the fact that international research has estimated that every €1 invested in treatment and rehabilitation results in a €7 saving in other service costs while a study published by the NHS earlier this year estimated that every £100 invested in drug treatment prevents a crime being committed.

In fact, to say the wealth of international evidence overwhelmingly refutes the notion that a strict policy of prohibition is remotely useful in tackling the drug problem is to understate the scale of the consensus.

The British Medical Journal, in 2010, said; “the prohibition on production, supply, and use of certain drugs has not only failed to deliver its intended goals but has been counterproductive” and the policy had only served to “exacerbate” public health problems.

The International Journal of Drug Policy, in a systematic review of all available peer-reviewed research last year, concluded that; “gun violence and the enrichment of organised crime networks appear to be natural consequences of drug prohibition”.

A study by the World Health Organisation in 2008, by 19 academics from 18 countries, concluded that; “drug use does not appear to be related to drug policy as countries with more stringent policies did not have lower levels of illegal drug use than countries with more liberal policies”.

These findings are nothing new. The Journal of Public Health Policy, in 2000, was clear that “available data indicates that decriminalisation measures substantially reduced enforcement costs yet have little or no impact on rates of use”.

An even earlier study, in Australia in 1995, found that “evidence is accumulating that liberalisation does not increase cannabis use [and] that the total prohibition approach is costly [and] ineffective as a general deterrent”.

However, perhaps the biggest blow to the prohibitionist ethos can be found in Portugal where all personal drug use was decriminalised in 2001. Despite the hysteria that greeted the decision at the time, with opposition politicians and conservative groups warning the country would quickly morph into a haven for drug-addled degenerates, a study published earlier this year revealed that the number of problem drug users — those who repeatedly use hard drugs and intravenous users — has fallen by 50%.

“The vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people,” said the country’s drug czar, Joao Goulao.

Rather than charge those found in possession of small amounts of drugs, the Portuguese instead made it an administrative offence and created “dissuasion panels”, composed of psychologists, judges and social workers, which question users on their drug habit and then recommend action, usually treatment, based on the specifics of each case.

This holistic approach has not only reduced the number of problem addicts but has also led to a “spectacular” reduction in infections among intravenous users and a significant drop in drug-related crime.

So, what does our Government do when faced with this preponderance of empirical evidence from a multitude of respected sources? Ignore it, of course.

Regrettably, most Irish politicians still prefer to frame the debate on drugs in simplistic moralistic tones, using a surfeit of hyperbolic outrage, entirely divorced from anything remotely resembling reality.

The stated objective of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-16, according to Minister Roisin Shortall, is to “tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on the five pillars with which we address this problem, that is, supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research”.

Well, I hate to be the one to break this to the Minister but most of those five pillars have long ago crumbled.

If fewer people are buying drugs today than in 2007 it has more to do with the recession than any intentional action of government and its commitments on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research are laughable in the light of the vicious cutbacks that have been made to support services in recent years.

Meanwhile, the most innovative new measure that the Joint Committee on Health and Children could come up with, in its recent report on drug policy, was a recommendation that the importation of cannabis seeds be criminalised — another facile knee-jerk kowtowing to populism.

Politicians pay lip-service to the “pillars” of drug prevention and treatment but the reality is that the number of heroin users in Ireland is the highest in the EU while mortality rates from drug-induced deaths are 3½ times the EU average — hardly a ringing endorsement of current policy.

Perhaps the problem has something to do with the fact that while half of the country’s 4,400-strong prison population has an addiction problem there are just nine drug treatment beds in the entire prison system while supports in community settings are not much better.

Senior politicians will doubtlessly continue to reminisce about their halcyon joint-smoking student days in the pages of Hot Press, but perhaps their time would be better spent devising a drug policy based on more than mere aspiration and anecdote — one that might actually work.

 This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Wednesday, July 04, 2012

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