How long will it be before all drugs, including hard ones such as heroin and cocaine, are legalised in this country?
Not very long, if the Commons Health and Social Care Committee has anything to do with it. This august body (whose chairman is Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, recent Tory defector to the Lib Dems) has just made the radical recommendation that all drugs should be decriminalised.
Anyone found with a ‘modest’ amount would not be arrested or fined, let alone sent to prison. Offenders wouldn’t acquire a criminal record. Instead, they would be given the chance to get help for their drug use.
The report also suggests that ministers should follow the example of Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised since 2001, and there has been a marked decline in overdose deaths and HIV infection rates.
The Commons Health and Social Care Committee – chaired by Sarah Wollaston (pictured) – has recommended that all drugs should be decriminalised
I’ve no doubt many liberal-minded people will be sympathetic to the Committee’s proposals. One hears the arguments all the time. If only drugs were decriminalised, drug-related crime would plummet, and many fewer young men would be murdered in our streets. The burglary rate would tumble.
It is argued in fashionable circles that these desirable things would happen if not merely the possession of all drugs was made legal but also the distribution and manufacture of such substances. Who can doubt that such a total free-for-all would be the eventual outcome?
I don’t share the report’s naive optimism. I believe the legalisation of drugs would lead to even more widespread abuse than exists now. More broken and unhappy lives. Probably more deaths.
And we may be sure that the people who would experience the most deleterious effects of legalisation would not be the prosperous middle-classes but the marginalised and the most vulnerable.
Anyone found with a ‘modest’ amount would not be arrested or fined, let alone sent to prison. Offenders wouldn’t acquire a criminal record. Instead, they would be given the chance to get help for their drug use (Pictured middle, Sarah Wollaston)
Underlying the Committee’s report is a dangerous misconception, which is shared by almost everyone advocating the decriminalisation of drugs. It is that we have a punitive drugs policy. We don’t.
It is true that in theory you can get a seven-year jail sentence for the possession of Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, and up to five years for possession of Class B drugs such as cannabis. But in practice such extreme penalties are seldom, if ever, applied.
Indeed, some police forces have given up prosecuting people who smoke the stuff. Five, including Durham and Surrey, have announced, without any apparent shame, that they will turn a blind eye to cannabis for personal consumption.
This is despite the fact that smoking it is illegal, and the existence of a growing mountain of evidence that repeated use of the more extreme forms of cannabis such as ‘skunk’ can cause schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis.
And it’s not just possession which the police ignore. Devon and Cornwall Constabulary discovered 194 cannabis farms in a four-year period but brought charges against only 79 suspects. Cannabis factories with specialist heating in West Yorkshire, Suffolk, Essex and Kent have also been spared.
The authorities take a harder line against suppliers of Class A drugs but increasingly let off users. For example, Avon and Somerset police have introduced a scheme allowing people caught with heroin or crack cocaine to choose between prosecution and an education programme.
Five police forces, including Durham and Surrey, have announced, without any apparent shame, that they will turn a blind eye to cannabis for personal consumption (stock image)
One only has to imagine the average middle-class consumer of hard drugs. Does he or she ever have the remotest fear of being caught and charged by the police? Of course not — unless another more serious crime has been committed at the same time.
So despite all the liberal angst about our supposedly draconian failed drug policies (seemingly shared by the Health and Social Care Committee), the fact is we have a remarkably easy-going regime.
Many of those proposing decriminalisation claim it is the only way of reducing drug-related crime. Why not try another approach that has scarcely been explored — namely, robustly applying the law against drug abuse? Oh, that would be too much of a challenge.
So the would-be reformers instead recommend that a door which is already much more than slightly ajar should be thrown wide open. The likely outcome would be increased use of drugs, particularly among the poor and deprived.
In Portugal, which is held up by the report as an exemplar of the effective control of drugs, the national drugs agency released figures in 2017 showing that the number of people using cannabis has risen by more than 40 per cent since decriminalisation in 2001.
Moreover, the widespread abuse of prescription opioids in the United States suggests that the easy availability of hard drugs tends to increase consumption. Hundreds of thousands of people there — and an increasing number in this country — are hooked on them.
The authorities take a harder line against suppliers of Class A drugs but increasingly let off users (stock image)
According to the American Journal of Public Health, deaths in 2016 from opioids dished out by medics were 50 a day using what is described as a ‘conservative’ method of analysis, and 89 a day employing what is termed a ‘traditional’ approach. That’s close to an epidemic.
In all likelihood, the legalisation of Class A drugs in this country would lead to more deaths and more wretchedness as they became freely obtainable without the stigma of breaking the law.
Sensible people would for the most part avoid them out of fear of addiction, but the feckless and the susceptible — and doubtless some young people in an experimental phase — would be drawn to them in greater numbers.
The MPs’ Health and Social Care Committee might retort that it is not recommending full legalisation — at least not yet. But I repeat my contention that the decriminalisation of possession would probably lead in due course to full legalisation.
Members of the Committee would also do well to take a closer look at Portugal, where strictly speaking all drugs, other than alcohol and tobacco, remain illegal. If you are found with illicit drugs in that country, whether hard or soft, you are meant to be arrested and taken to a police station. If the amount is above a certain threshold, you should be charged, and can be sent to prison.
Should the amount of drugs be small, you are supposed to be sent to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, and interviewed by a psychologist or social worker before appearing in front of a three-person panel which will offer suggestions aimed at stopping your drug use.
All in all, this regime seems in many respects tougher than the lax one we have here. I can’t imagine an average cannabis or cocaine user in Britain relishing being examined by a panel.
No doubt improved care of addicts in this country would be a step forward so long as it was not accompanied by a green light approving their use of a banned substance.
I don’t suppose the recommendations of a lone Commons Committee will be taken all that seriously. But they are undoubtedly part of a growing campaign to legalise not just so-called soft drugs but hard ones, too.
Let the police and courts better apply the laws we already have. It’s not going to be easy, of course. But that’s no reason for not attempting it. The unfettered availability of dangerous drugs would be a social nightmare.