Politics that's high on paranoia

May 18, 2001

The UK's drugs strategy is ripe for revision, says Howard Parker.

Common sense has bedevilled drugs policy for a decade. It is common sense to stop young people taking drugs by providing school-based educational programmes. It is common sense to restrict the availability of illicit drugs by stemming supply. It is common sense to lock up those who deal drugs near secondary schools.

Unfortunately, common sense is not only inadequate, it is dangerous. Drugs education has a poor international record: it may be worthwhile, but it does not stop young people trying drugs. Nor can we stem the supply of illicit drugs into the country when the international drugs economy is so potent. Furthermore, those drug dealers by the school gates wear school uniforms. Young people obtain their drugs from each other. About half our youth population have breached the Misuse of Drugs Act, and perhaps one in five has supplied Class A drugs. Are we to lock them all up?

The United Kingdom's drugs strategy for England is struggling to meet its targets on cutting use and supply precisely because so much of the effort is based on common sense. A more sophisticated, evidence-based strategy would make use of epidemiology. Why set unrealistic targets for reducing cocaine use at the beginning of a cocaine "cycle"? Why target only people under 25 at a time when drug experimentation and use among adolescents has plateaued but drug use among twenty-somethings is rising?

Why not have a strategy that keeps up with drug realities and anticipates trends? Why are those people who are going to try cocaine anyway not made aware of how to minimise the downside of its use? Because the drugs strategy contains no harm-reduction agenda for recreational users.

We need to respond to and manage the whole UK drugs population, not just the 3 per cent who are problem users. A whole raft of practical measures should be introduced. Take drugged-up clubbers trying to get home. Certainly, we need enforcement and policing of their tendency to drive themselves home, but what about late buses and trains and clubs providing mini-buses and ticket discounts for customers coming by coach? This is but one example of how recreational drug use can be managed.

Despite the limitations of the drugs strategy, its very existence and coordination structure has made many resources available. The growth in funding for treatment services and criminal justice interventions is staggering. Moreover, the targets are underpinned by effectiveness evidence.

The trick over the next five years will be to ensure that quality is not sacrificed in the dash for quantity. Treatment works, but not unconditionally. Gains such as successful treatment outcomes are deliverable, but - given that the current arrangements are struggling - the process, delivery and auditing of programmes must be got right.

The next government should undertake an early review of the drugs strategy. Its first task must be to rid the establishment of institutionalised dishonesty in discussing drugs.

There has been no considered debate for many years. Defensiveness rules, as the immediate dismissal of the recommendations of the independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act showed. Yet surely it is time for government to review and, if necessary, modernise legislation that is 40 years old this month.

The problem is political paranoia, but a new administration could ride out the inevitable accusations of going soft on drugs and eventually take electoral credit, especially from young people, for an honest debate and a more realistic drugs strategy. There is little to fear and, in terms of reducing the harms and downsides of drug use among the recreational and the problem users, much to gain. If only this was common sense.

Howard Parker is director of Sparc, an alcohol and drugs-focused research and consultancy centre at Manchester University and co-author of UK Drugs Unlimited , to be published by Palgrave in June, £40.00.

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