WE HAVE ALREADY DECRIMINALISED – THAT’S THE PROBLEM
by Kathy Gyngell
Chair – Centre for Policy Studies' Prisons and Addictions forum
It is hard to understand why Sir Ian Gilmore has chosen, right at the end of his worthy career, to ‘come out’ on behalf of the decriminalisation of drugs as he did in yesterday's Guardian. Even the most intelligent and thoughtful of men can get it wrong sometimes. He certainly has in this case.
How it escaped his attention that we have had a de facto decriminalisation of drugs for the last 10 years in this country, I don't know.
Whether you look at the declining levels of custodial sentencing, the directing of addicts into methadone maintenance, the example of Cambridgeshire police handing out needles rather than enforcing the law, the sanguine response of the judge to Pete Doherty arriving in court with Class A drugs in his pockets, the warnings instead of penalties for cannabis possession albeit now a Class B drug, or the general blind eye turned on the tripling of cocaine use (when was the last time anyone got the maximum 7 years for possession? Now that could be a deterrent) it all adds up to one thing… We do not, in this country, have a coherent, let alone active, policy of enforcement that could possibly be described as ‘blanket prohibition’.
Contrary to an oppressive regime, Sir Ian’s case is based on less than a 10th of prisoners are inside for drug offences and, let’s be under no illusion, some of these are very nasty criminals indeed.
Contrary to received wisdom prison sentences, suspended sentences and fines for personal use and possession of drugs in the Netherlands far exceed those in England – in fact by a factor of about 20. Given that England has one of the highest drug use and the highest problem drug use prevalence rate in Europe – three times higher than the ‘tougher’ not more liberal Netherlands it is more than conceivable that it is the feebleness not the strength of our sanctions that is ineffective and costly.
Anyone labouring under the impression that Portugal’s formal decriminalisation of use and personal possession has been the resounding success it had been sold to be, should think again. An up-to-date analysis of the data on Aids, drugs deaths (overdoses) and the number of homicides related to drugs, as well as of drug consumption, shows them all to have increased since.
Magistrates too, despair of the alternatives left to them, other than custody, when abusive, violent and disorderly poly substance abusers (alcohol is usually in the mix) appear time and again before them. What would Sir Ian’s solution be to this? Does he really think that removing criminal sanctions for drug use and possession would bring down Aids and HIV? That it would make addicts’ behaviour less risky, that drug users would user fewer not more drugs, that they would no longer commit crime to feed their habit? Does he think they would overnight become taxpaying citizens with the resources to pay for private heroin prescriptions – for why on earth should the taxpayer fund this?
The harms caused by de facto decriminalisation are already too high. Decriminalisation would weaken any remnant reason for teenagers, with their increased susceptibility to risk taking, to resist them. It would seriously undermine parents and teachers’ authority.
Professor Neil Mckeganey has cogently argued that current levels of drug use are still relatively low but that the damage caused is disproportionately high. Any further eruption of drug use on a scale comparable to alcohol use, he argues, simply could not be managed, contained or afforded. Hospitals and mental health and child protection services could not cope. Civil society as we know it would be threatened.
Prevention needs to be the order of the day. I cannot see decriminalisation helping that.
Click here for the full article by Kathy Gyngell.