Britain Admits Anti-Drug Laws Are Useless
The government commissioned a massive study on the impact of international anti-drug laws—but its conclusions have the Conservatives spooked.
LONDON — It’s the recreational drug report they didn’t want you to see. A comprehensive study of international narcotics regulations commissioned by Britain has concluded that there is no evidence tough anti-drug laws have any effect on levels of use.
Senior government officials are accused of trying to delay or even prevent the publication of the report, which contradicts the official policy of Britain and many of its Western allies, including the United States.
The coalition government’s crime prevention minister said the report has been ready for months but “it was suppressed by the Conservatives.” Coalition junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, have advocated relaxing drug laws and argued that there are far too many drug users in jail.
In compiling the report Home Office officials visited 11 countries, including the U.S., with a wide-range of drug policies—from Portugal, where all drug use has been decriminalized, to Japan, where a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy is in operation. The conclusion: law enforcement policies have no impact on the rate of drug use.
The report offers no explicit policy recommendations but its most striking example of a successful drug policy is in Portugal. The 2001 legalization of drugs has resulted in no increase in drug use but a huge improvement in the health of addicts, including a significant reduction in the number of drug users being diagnoses with HIV and AIDS.
Norman Baker, the Lib Dem crime prevention minister, said his Conservative colleagues were terrified of the report because it didn’t suit their existing preconceptions. “For me the evidence is very clear. If you see a tree, it’s a tree,” he said. “The Liberal Democrats believe drugs policy should be based on evidence, not dogma or the desire to sound tough.”
“We’ve had what I would call mindless rhetoric over the last 40 years which has tended to say there is only one solution and anyone who offers any alternative must by definition be ‘soft on drugs’.”
The Home Office, which sets policy for the police and prison systems, said there was nothing in the report that would alter their approach. “This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalizing drugs,” a spokesman said.
Unfortunately, the department’s own report appears to suggest that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country,” the report said.
Portugal’s decriminalization strategy, which was introduced after a heroin epidemic in the 1990s, prioritized treatment instead of prison sentences. Not only did the report find that drug use was stabilized, but there were significant savings with the courts and prisons no longer filled with habitual drug users. “There are indications that decriminalization can reduce the burden on criminal justice systems,” the report said.
During their visit to the U.S., the researchers found no evidence that drug courts reduced reoffending rates. They raised some concerns about the packaging of medical marijuana, which is often not presented like medicine as it is in the Netherlands, but said it was too early to evaluate the affect of legalization in Colorado and Washington.
The report was signed off by Baker and Theresa May, the Conservative Party’s tough Home Secretary. Baker said the report was held back against his wishes. “The reality is that this report has been sitting around for several months. I’ve been trying to get it out and I’m afraid that I believe that my coalition colleagues who commissioned the report jointly don’t like the independent conclusions it’s reached,” he said. “It was suppressed, not by Theresa May, it was suppressed by the Conservatives and the reality is that it has got some inconvenient truths in it.
“What we need to do is recognize that locking somebody up in prison for a matter of weeks because they happen to possess a Class B or a Class C drug is a nonsensical approach. It doesn’t change their attitude.”
Drug law campaigners welcomed the report even if it is unlikely to force a policy re-think in the near future. “This is a historic moment in the development of UK drug policy. For the first time in over 40 years the Home Office has admitted that enforcing tough drug laws doesn’t necessarily reduce levels of drug use,” said Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “It has also acknowledged that decriminalizing the possession of drugs doesn’t increase levels of use.”
The Liberal Democrats have argued that efforts to tackle drug kingpins should be redoubled while low-level users should be spared jail.
Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, attacked the Conservatives for their predictable response to the report. “I think the Tories have a misplaced, backward-looking, outdated view that the public would not accept a smarter approach on how to deal with drugs,” he told London radio station LBC. “The argument I have made to them privately and publicly is pluck up the courage to face up to the evidence that what we are doing is not as effective as it should be, there are lessons we can learn from other countries and if you are anti-drugs you should be pro-reform. Have the courage for once just to break some of the taboos.”