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Do drug users need punishment or pity?

Mark Easton | 17:20 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Today's government "Drugs Strategy" [466KB PDF] includes this five-word statement: "drug possession is a crime".

While technically accurate, the phrase disguises the national and global debate on whether we should view drug users as criminals deserving of punishment or patients in need of treatment. It is a debate that rages between the lines of the strategy itself.

On the one hand the document sets out a government approach that would "consistently enforce effective criminal sanctions to deter drug use" but simultaneously "offer every support for people to choose recovery as an achievable way out of dependency".

So there are "good" drug users who will be helped to give up and "bad" drug users whose refusal to enter treatment will leave them open to all the criminal sanctions on the statute book.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the body which tries to ensure signatories to the various UN drug conventions toe the international line, "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution".

A recent UNODC report entitled "From coercion to cohesion: Treating drug dependence through health care, not punishment" [350KB PDF] questioned whether users of illicit substances may have already suffered enough.

Paragraph from UNODC paper, From Coercion to Cohesion

So, on one reading, today's strategy for the UK seems to be at odds with the direction of travel in the international arena. But beyond the two lines I have quoted concerning the criminality of drug possession, the document is largely in tune with ideas on how to "nudge" users to give up.

The UNODC has debated the kind of "coercion" that could be regarded as legitimate in the context of seeing the user as someone suffering from a disease and have concluded that cutting benefits does not necessarily mean "violating the rights of drug users and drug dependent individuals to refuse treatment".

Paragraph from UNODC paper, From Coercion to Cohesion

The UK government has leapt on that last suggestion, announcing that "we will offer claimants who are dependent on drugs or alcohol a choice between rigorous enforcement of the normal conditions and sanctions where they are not engaged in structured recovery activity, or appropriately tailored conditionality for those that are."

"Over the longer term, we will explore building appropriate incentives into the universal credit system to encourage and reward treatment take-up. In practice, this means that those not in treatment will neither be specifically targeted with, nor excused from, sanctions by virtue of their dependence, but will be expected to comply with the full requirements of the benefits regime or face the consequences."

For some, however, the drugs strategy will be seen as a missed opportunity to engage with another growing global debate: whether prohibition itself makes the problem worse.

The Home Secretary Theresa May closes down any thought that she might go down that road. "This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer," she writes in the foreword to the strategy.

"Decriminalisation fails to recognise the complexity of the problem and gives insufficient regard to the harms that drugs pose to the individual. It neither addresses the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol, nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community."

In a separate "Impact Assessment" [303KB PDF] of the strategy it is explained what options the ministers considered when designing the policies:

Paragraph from Home Office's Impact Assessment

By restricting the reform agenda to a choice between doing nothing or Implimplementing their plans, ministers have effectively closed down all discussion of anything more radical.


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