The latest report from the Home Office, which has found that harsh sentencing fails to curb illegal drug abuse, is a welcome addition to the body of evidence world-wide that current policies against drug misuse are not working. I wonder now whether our politicians might be brave enough to grasp this nettle and be prepared to look at alternatives to tackle this international problem.
Back in 2009, I questioned a report highlighting the problems of binge drinking in the city centre. The point I was trying to make then was that alcohol, like nicotine, was equally as addictive and destructive as other illegal drugs, possibly even more so given the number of addicts, and yet it was legal.
Unfortunately the reporter who wrote the subsequent article decided to portray me as an advocate of the legalisation of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin, which was never the case. What I was proposing, which I am again now, is that we set up something like a Royal Commission to investigate whether our present approach is bringing results or whether there may be an alternative policy out there which would help us to get to grips with this apparently intractable problem.
Most of us use some form of stimulus in our lives to help us along. In my case, besides enjoying a good strong cup of coffee in the morning to get me going and a couple of glasses of wine at night for relaxation, I do not think I have what is sometimes referred to as an ‘addictive personality’, except, some may say, an addiction to seeing my name in print!
Unfortunately, there are people who simply cannot function without some kind of support and it is this minority which often succumbs to the worst excesses of abuse that can ruin their own lives, and often the lives of those around them, and indeed hasten their demise. It is these people who need our help. To criminalise them if they happen to get hooked on illegal rather than legal drugs can often make the matter far worse.
Before the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971, the United Kingdom had a fairly liberal attitude to drugs. With the earlier Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act of 1964 which dealt with the increasing use of amphetamines and other similar substances, whose use had started escalating in the ‘swinging’ 60s, the writing was probably on the wall. It was the Heath government’s desire to join in with US President Richard Nixon’s much publicised ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971 that forced the major change.
Until then, for example, a person could register as an addict and receive drugs such as heroin on prescription, a system introduced in the 1920s. Many people were able to maintain a reasonable life style with this regular, unadulterated supply. Sadly, there were exceptions and it was possibly the phasing out of this policy during the 1960s and the 1971 Act that have led to the marked increase in misuse which has continued by and large to this day.
Up until then, we had a fairly ambivalent attitude to what are now considered illegal drugs. Several of our romantic poets regularly took opium, notably Coleridge, who allegedly wrote his famous poetic fragment, ‘Kubla Khan’ after using it. Queen Victoria was reported to have used tincture of cannabis to ease her pain during the birth of several of her offspring, whilst the original ingredients of Coca Cola included extracts from the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived. Indeed, I believe that morphine derivatives were readily available as a ‘tonic’ over the counter in chemists here up until the First World War. In Victorian times we went to war twice with China to secure the trade in opium, from whose sale we profited financially. During campaigns in World War Two servicemen were apparently given regular doses of amphetamines to keep them going when the going got tough, before their true effect was realised.
Those who maintain that the current drugs policy is working should consider the collateral damage this policy can cause. Look at the desperate state of affairs in countries in Central and South America caused by drugs cartels or the wars fought in places like Afghanistan, whose main aim, many believe, was to try to prevent the cultivation of opium poppies, whose product ends up on our streets.
They should also remember what happened when the United States tried to ban alcohol by legislation. When the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting the sale of alcohol became law in January 1920, it heralded a massive explosion in bootlegging, which saw the rise of criminal gangs led by mobsters like Al Capone and the arrival of ‘speakeasies’ in most cities and towns. No wonder the ban was overturned by the 21st Amendment in December 1933. The policy, laudable as it might have seemed in 1920, just did not have the effect that its advocates desired. In fact, you could argue that it made matters worse!
There is no doubt that a large number of our citizens who come before our courts and often end up in our prisons do so because of their addiction, whether to alcohol or other drugs. They are generally there not because of their addiction per se; but because of the crimes they commit to feed their habit. Surely, these people should not be treated as criminals but as patients.
Countries like Portugal and Switzerland, to give just two examples, have a very different approach which appears to be working. There are many experts, who believe that, by decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use, by offering effective treatment to addicts, and by going after those people, who manufacture and sell drugs, much of the criminal element associated with the drugs trade could be eliminated and the number of users reduced considerably.
I have no idea whether such a policy would work in the long term, although I personally suspect it might. What is plain, however, is that the present policy, like prohibition in the USA in the 1920s, is not working. Our politicians and legislators need to be brave enough to have a fresh look at a world-wide problem that just will not go away.
John was a councillor for thirty years, finally retiring in 2017. A schoolteacher by profession, he served on the North Hykeham Town Council (1987-2011), the North Kesteven District Council (1987-1999, 2001-2007) and the Lincolnshire County Council (2001-2017). He was also a County Council member of the former Lincolnshire Police Authority for eight years until standing down in 2009. In 1997 he was the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham. He is currently not a member of any political party.