As the debate on the legalisation of drugs flares up once more we consider whether a more interventionist approach is advisableby Josh Lowe / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Peter Hitchens is vehemently opposed to the legalisation of drugs © Yui Mok/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Last week, I went to a debate about drug policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I was struck by how “stock” everything felt. The crowd, dressed in bronze jewellery, earthy fabrics and woolly hoodies, chattered before the start about decriminalisation, evidence-based intervention and, one suspected, recent chemically aided nights out. The panel, an all-star line up (in drug policy terms), ran the gamut of requisite opinions. At one end of the spectrum was crossbench peer and decriminalisation advocate Baroness Meacher. At the other, one-man moral panic Peter Hitchens. The evening left me wondering how the reformist movement might focus on step-by-step change, rather than hurling itself against the sneering cliff-face of good old British conservatism.
As the panel duked it out on the motion “The war on drugs has failed, we would legalise drugs,” there were plenty of standout moments. Proposing the motion Danny Kushlick, founder of reformist drugs think tank Transform, gave a potted history of international narcotics policy. This ran from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the first treaty on drugs to contain the word “evil” in the final document, to the 2008 World Drug Report, in which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledged that services devoted to public health were under resourced compared to those devoted to public security. Hitchens in particular acted his villain’s role well for the opposition. When the proposition argued that morality is not “carved on stone tablets”, the Mail on Sunday columnist muttered darkly “yes it is”.
Throughout, I couldn’t help feeling that we weren’t getting anywhere. The debate, emotionally and morally charged on the pro-criminalisation side, stat-heavy and somewhat dry on the other, was a microcosm of English and Welsh action on this issue. Just over a year ago we saw it writ large, when an optimistic Nick Clegg threw his weight behind the Home Affairs Select Committee’s call for a royal commission to investigate legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. He was quickly shot down by David Cameron.
Perhaps it is time for those in favour of evidence-based drugs policy to change tack. Options exist which are humane and considered, but do not require major changes to the law. Those who weren’t already on the sherry in early December may recall Chandler from Friends (okay, the actor Matthew Perry), sporting a new scraggly thinker’s beard, locked in battle with the ubiquitous Mr Hitchens in the Newsnight studio.
Perry, who has struggled with alcohol addiction throughout his career but is now sober, was in London as part of a US delegation which had visited Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to promote the introduction of “drug courts”, specialist courts aimed at directing drug offenders into supervised treatment, to the English and Welsh justice system. I saw Perry talk at Policy Exchange, where he worked hard to win over a beige-jacketed audience of civil service crusties. His speech was light on detail, heavy on humour: it began “Hi, I’m Matthew, and I’m an alcoholic.” To his credit, he managed to get a half-hearted “Hi, Matthew,” back.
Drug courts are worthy of consideration. Positioned alongside conventional justice institutions, drug-addicted offenders can be sent to drug courts so long as they meet the entry requirements. Different drug courts are set up to address different problems—the National Association of Drug Court Professionals website currently lists 10 variations. “Adult drug courts,” for example, usually accept only nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders of legal age. Veterans Treatment Courts—the newest model, first introduced in New York State in 2008—work with offenders who have served in the military. Most drug courts would require rigorous proof that those wanting to take part were suffering from addiction, and according to an NADCP spokesman they are especially appropriate for those who have a history of flunking out of other treatments, as they provide a more rigorous model.
Offenders (the NADCP refers to them as “participants” but their legal status is unchanged) are mandated to attend intensive treatment for their addiction for a minimum of one year, during which time they will usually be living at home or with family. Unlike in traditional courts, a drug court judge regularly sees participants for review hearings, rewarding good behaviour or punishing them for failing to reach a specified goal such as finding employment. A participant making exceptional progress might get anything from a fishing trip to membership of a health club. Break the rules, however, and you could be subjected to electronic tagging or a five-day jail sentence.
There is some compelling evidence in support of drug courts, which were first trialled in America in 1989. US studies have shown that 78 per cent of adult drug courts “significantly” decreased crime in their local area, and reduced re-arrest or reconviction rates by between eight and 26 per cent. Some variation in the data is inevitable: drug courts tend to work with local third sector organisations and law enforcement, and as such their effectiveness depends partly on pre-existing infrastructure. There are currently around 2,700 drug courts in the US. One of the Policy Exchange event’s most powerful arguments came from Perry, who pointed out that a drug addicted offender in the UK would be released from prison and “left to the streets” with a mere £46 discharge grant. “Those people have no chance,” he said. His view is supported by recent Ministry of Justice statistics which show that 57.2 per cent of drug-misusing offenders convicted or released from custody between July 2010 and June 2011 went on to re-offend, compared to 26.9 per cent of all offenders.
This sounds encouraging but there are problems. Issues highlighted in 2011 by the Drug Policy Alliance included worries about the impact of draconian sentencing on addicts, in particular that those deemed “failures” by drug courts may actually face longer sentences because they have lost the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge.
But even a debate which pitted drug courts against other interventions like increased public funding for rehabilitation clinics would be a positive step. Drugs reformists in the UK have become too hung up on the ultimate goal of decriminalisation or legalisation. Experimenting with smaller-scale progressive innovations like drug courts could lead to quicker relief for the nightmarish problems many addicts face, and would likely soften up Westminster and the public for eventual legal reform. It might not be as fun as New Year’s Day in Colorado, when recreational weed became legal in the state, but ultimately it could be as rewarding.
As NADCP chief executive West Huddleston put it at the Policy Exchange event: “Whether drugs are legal or illegal… people are going to emerge in the criminal justice system, people are going to emerge in the emergency room, people are going to emerge in places where they need help for their addiction.” Before pushing for huge systemic change, it makes sense to build a legal and healthcare infrastructure which treats addicts with more detailed understanding and greater compassion. Drug courts could be a good place to start.