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A new study has found that “tough on drugs” has no direct link to tackling the problem. In other words our drug policies don’t work.

The Home Office comparison of international drug laws, published on Wednesday, will be the first official recognition, since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, thatsuggests  being tough on a problem does not solve it. The report, which has been signed off on by both the Conservative home secretary, Theresa May, and the Liberal Democrat crime prevention minister, Norman Baker, is based on an in-depth study of drug laws in 11 countries. These countries range from the zero-tolerance of Japan, to the legalisation policy in Uruguay and have shown some startling results.

The key finding of the report, written by civil servants, lies in a comparison between Portugal, where personal use is decriminalised, and the Czech Republic, where criminal penalties for possession were only introduced as recently as 2010.

The report states “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country. The Czech Republic and Portugal have similar approaches to possession, where possession of small amounts of any drug does not lead to criminal proceedings, but while levels of drug use in Portugal appear to be relatively low, reported levels of cannabis use in the Czech Republic are among the highest in Europe.”

The part which is however mildly astonishing is, “Indicators of levels of drug use in Sweden, which has one of the toughest approaches we saw, point to relatively low levels of use, but not markedly lower than countries with different approaches.”

Despite committee after committee wrangling over the language and ensuring that there would be no conclusions written into the report, a strong conclusion just by reading the evidence can be drawn. It is difficult to escape that the Home Office civil servants, who wrote the report, are much more impressed with a health-based policy rather than a criminal-based policy and that treating drug use as a health problem is the path to good policy. Especially considering there was not a marked difference between a very strong criminal policy as in the case of Sweden.

The report also remarkably says; that the experiments in legalisation now under way in Washington, Colorado and in Uruguay, should be watched with interest. This is a enormous difference from the “war on drugs” rhetoric that has shaped the political debate on drugs for the past four decades. The report, Drugs: International Comparators, follows in great detail the experience of Portugal, where personal use was decriminalised nearly 11 years ago. Those arrested for drugs crimes are given the choice of going before a health “dissuasion commission” or facing a criminal justice process.

“Trend data from Portugal shows how levels of drug use changed in the years following decriminalisation in 2001. Although levels of drug use rose between 2001 and 2007, use of drugs has since fallen to below 2001 levels. It is clear that there has not been a lasting and significant increase in drug use in Portugal since 2001,” This seems to indicate that the initial increase was due to gluttony of the drug using citizenry, and the real life demands caught up with those drug users. This eventually led to them being aided by the Portuguese government and getting clean.

Nevertheless the report stridently disagrees with the notion that the Portuguese decriminalisation has led to a long term increase in drug use in the country. It goes on to contrast Portugal with the Czech Republic, where an evaluation found that there was no significant decline in the availability of drugs following the implementation of stricter laws in 2010. This again seems to show what we already knew, that if you need drugs you will do what is required to get them regardless of the legality of that drug or the potential consequences.

The report makes the observation that the reason for legalisation in the US and Uruguay was an attempt to disrupt trafficking and organised crime. “The American states have a market-driven approach, with lighter regulation than Uruguay and fewer limitations on consumption and use. Uruguay, which has growing concerns about organised crime, has a stronger role for the state, with limitations in size of the market, the strains and potency of cannabis, and the quantity that an individual can purchase in a month.” Crucially, the report adds: “It is too early to know how these experiments will play out, but we will monitor the impacts of these new policies in the coming years.” Early indications are however looking positive with trafficking down in each of these cases; although we do not yet know if that is a temporary anomaly or a trend which can be predicted and linked to these new laws.

The report also examined various harm reduction initiatives in 11 countries, including the use of drug consumption rooms, the prescription of heroin under medical supervision, and prison-based needle exchange programmes. This includes in heavily regulated and limited cases in the UK where prescribing heroin can be effective in the long term health of the prisoner/patient.

As mentioned above the report was not allowed to state a clear conclusion but in the final paragraph the report does say “Achieving better health outcomes for drug users cannot be shown to be a direct result of the enforcement approach.” That in of itself is telling. Being tough on drugs has not solved the problem and yet there has been no move to treat this issue as more of a health crisis than a criminal case. Over 10,000 of the 80,000 prisoners in the UK are in jail for “non-violent crimes” or drug offences and yet we have not even made a dent in the problem. It is time to start considering a different approach to our drug policy, it seems not to matter how tough you are, maybe compassion will give us a better result.