Healthcare Politics

Some thoughts on drug policy

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Former Home Office Minister under Labour, Bob Ainsworth MP, has ’embarrassed’ his party leadership by claiming that ‘prohibition isn’t helping [and] the ‘War on Drugs’ is failing’.

I would think that one useful way of approaching the issue is to consider the balance of harms affecting drug users (who choose to use drugs) and non-drug users (who choose not to). Currently non-drug users suffer from the violence and crime associated with the illegality of drug use and supply and pay the costs of countering them, and they have to cover most of the costs of treatment for the results of poorly-prepared street drugs and of addiction.

Under a legalised but regulated regime non-drug users would be spared most of these costs. The downside risk is that there may be more users of drugs, but this will be offset by safer access to them and less social dislocation for individual users as they no longer automatically belong to the criminal world. And in the end, the use of drugs is a choice, so it seems right that the balance of harms should be tilted (if at all) against those that make that choice.

Of course harms from drug use do not just affect drug users, although these ‘wider harms’ are probably less than for alcohol as David Nutt’s Lancet paper suggests. (Free registration is required for access.)

I would argue that these harms for non-alcohol drugs would be dramatically reduced by removing drug users and suppliers from the criminal world they currently inhabit. The cost to society of users/addicts who pay for a safe supply of their own drugs and so in fact are generally able to continue functioning would likely be much less than it is now. As a result I think we could afford the modest increase in overall use that might result (based on what evidence that there is on this question).

Human beings are prone to potentially self-destructive behaviour – if we can’t access drugs for the purpose we will find something else. What we can do is minimise the consequences of this behaviour for ourselves and society as a whole. Surrounding a particular type of behaviour with a whole panoply of criminal justice sanctions doesn’t seem likely in theory or in practice to achieve this.

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