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'Give drug users a break'

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Mark Easton | 16:17 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009

"People who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution."

Not the sentiment of some soft-hearted liberal, but a clarion call to the world's governments from the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

world_drug_report226.jpgAntonio Maria Costa has long argued for the toughest action to control drugs.

"Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled - they are controlled because they are harmful," he proclaims in his passionate preface to the latest annual UN report on drugs.

He attempts to counter what he describes as the "growing chorus" among politicians, press and public that drug control is failing and that legalisation is the answer:

"I urge governments to recalibrate the policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs."

His argument sets up what some might argue is a bogus choice between total legalisation or tough criminal sanctions. But he makes it with conviction:

"Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment?"

So far, so familiar. But what do you make of this?

"I appeal to the heroic partisans of the human rights cause worldwide, to help UNODC promote the right to health of drug addicts: they must be assisted and reintegrated into society," Mr Costa demands:

"Addiction is a health condition and those affected by it should not be imprisoned... in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias."

Calling for a "shift of focus" in law enforcement from drug users to drug traffickers, Mr Costa says:

"...arresting individuals and seizing drugs for their personal use is like pulling weeds - it needs to be done again the next day. The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities."

This attitude is a surprise from a man who has previously demanded that no quarter be given in the global war on drugs.

The UNODC recently congratulated the British government for reclassifying cannabis as a Class B rather than a Class C drug. But the only change affected by reclassification was to increase the maximum sentence for possession - from two to five years.

How does that square with Mr Costa's argument that "drug courts and medical assistance are more likely to build healthier and safer societies than incarceration"?

The idea that Britain's criminal justice system should decriminalise possession while retaining tough sanctions against those who sell illegal drugs is not a new one.

Anabolic steroids are Class C drugs, but it is legal to possess or import them for personal use. On the other hand, if people possess or import them "with intent to supply" it could lead to 14 years in prison.

The decision not to create an offence of simple possession followed advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs back in 1993. The committee told ministers that penalising users would be "undesirable as it would criminalise a whole group of people".

The Chief Executive of the independent UK Drug Policy Commission, Roger Howard, tells me that Antonio Maria Costa's comments "open the door to non-criminal sanctions and decriminalisation for simple possession".

He adds that "they also raise the possibility of non-penal or non-criminal sanctions for offenders committing low-level crimes to fund an addiction" while pointing out that "growing international evidence supports alternatives that address the underlying problems of drugs and social exclusion."

Next week, I am going to Portugal - which decriminalised the possession and personal use of all drugs in 2001.

A recent Cato Institute report on the policy said:

"None of the parade of horrors that decriminalization opponents in Portugal predicted, and that decriminalization opponents around the world typically invoke, has come to pass. In many cases, precisely the opposite has happened, as usage has declined in many key categories and drug-related social ills have been far more contained in a decriminalized regime."

I shall, of course, report back - so watch this space.


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