I have just finished listening to a special edition of Radio 4's "The World Tonight" that was broadcast on Christmas Eve about drugs policy (it's still here on iPlayer although I am not sure for how much longer).
I was disappointed by how little of the 40 minute programme was given to the idea of legalisation and regulation of drugs. It was touched upon tangentially a couple of times and then there was a small amount of time at the end where one of the contributors (former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda) stated that he was in favour of legalisation and regulation of cannabis and also heroin. The other panellists were Professor of Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University Neil McKegany and US government advisor on drugs Keith Humphries.
There were recorded pieces and lots of discussion about the production of drugs, the supply routes and the demand side of things. These were all covered in a lot of detail. I think that the programme suffered from what I hear a lot around this debate: an assumption that the current prohibition situation is broadly correct and that what needs to happen is to modify the approach slightly but still keep everything illegal.
Jorge made the point that all the comments being made by the other two panellists and successive governments about how they were going to refocus their efforts and that there "may have been mistakes in the past but they have learned from those mistakes" have been said time and again over several decades now. There was no real recognition from the other two panellists that the "War on Drugs" has failed. In fact at one point Neil McKegany stated that in his view the fact that "only" 1% of people in the UK use heroin is a testament to how effective the current policy has been. Given that there has been at least a hundred-fold increase in heroin users in this country since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs act came into force I am not sure how that can be considered to have been an effective policy.
There were also some other comments made that I found frustrating. The example of Portugal and the success its 8 years (and counting) of decriminalisation of all drug use was raised near the start and was highlighted as a great success (although no detail was covered). I blogged about this myself here earlier this year and described how Portugal had found that drug use had actually decreased in every category since they had decriminalised. However later on in the discussion when the idea of legalisation was briefly put to Neil McKegany he stated baldly that he would not want to do anything that might encourage drug use. Nobody picked him up on the fact that Portugal's situation flies in the face of the received wisdom that liberalisation of drug laws inevitably lead to increased use and in fact shows that is not necessarily the case at all.
There was also much talk about how good and successful abstinence based programmes are. Keith Humphries claimed to have lots of evidence showing this. However the discussion also just seemed to accept that mandatory abstinence based programmes are the only way forward and the idea that some treatment may also need to encompass managing the addiction in other ways was dismissed as almost unbelievable. The thing is though that in order for an addict to abstain they have to want to. 12 step based programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous were mentioned but one of NA's founding principles is that the person attending the meeting should want to stop taking drugs. This is exactly the same as for other 12 step based programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. It is actually the only requirement for membership of one of these fellowships. Taken from the UK NA website:
NA is a non-profit Fellowship of men and women for whom drugs had become a major problem.We are recovering addicts who meet regularly to help each other stay clean.The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop using.
Legally mandated or enforced attendance at NA meetings risks going against this principle. If someone does not want to stop using (or drinking or gambling), nobody can make them. The difference with illegal drugs of course (as opposed to alcohol or gambling) is precisely that they are illegal and governments consistently try to make users of them stop.
I think this panel discussion would have benefitted from the input of someone from Transform Drugs Policy Foundation or Release to have been able to argue much more strongly for legalisation and regulation. Many of the other problems they were discussing on the programme would be greatly eased and perhaps even in some cases eliminated if a regime such as this were embraced.
Kudos to the BBC for dedicating an entire programme to this subject but perhaps next time they could strive to ensure that the discussion is widened.