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June 17, 2016

Drugs reform: an idea whose time has come?

Our prisons are awash with drugs, as the recent BBC film of Wandsworth prison revealed, with prisoners openly smoking dope together. Drugs are brought in by staff, visitors and drones.  There are dealers inside and outside making money, and users racking up debts.  Prisoners leave prison with drug debts they feel they can only pay by turning back to crime.  This makes prison a dead end, from which there is no way out.

The drugs market inside prison mirrors that outside – a trade marked by extortion, violence and exploitation.  6% of under eighteen year olds in prison are there are drugs offences – mostly supply. But how culpable are they? No teenager dealing on the street will be in control of a drugs market.  In fact many are ruthlessly exploited and terrorised by the “businessmen” who run the trade, most of whom are never caught.

Enforcement of harsh sanctions doesn’t seem to have any effect on the availability of drugs, or on levels of addiction.  So is it time to look again at the way we deal with drugs?  Portugal decriminalised possession and personal usage of all drugs in 2001 and seems to have had no increase in addiction.  This week the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health, proposes the same change for Britain  “For too long, UK and global drugs strategies have pursued reductions in drug use as an end in itself, failing to recognise that harsh criminal sanctions have pushed vulnerable people in need of treatment to the margins of society, driving up harm to health and wellbeing even as overall use falls”. They also found that the public would prefer users to get treatment than a criminal sanction.  This chimes with the research done on reframing criminal justice which found that people do not think of crimes of drug possession and supply as as serious as violence, burglary and theft.  So there is a real opportunity for the government to reform – if not to decriminalise, to reduce all sentences for crimes of possession and low level supply.  A new organisation, Volteface, is hosting a lively debate on drugs reform.

In a year 52,000 people are convicted in England and Wales of possession or supply of drugs, of which around half are for possession of class B or C drugs such as cannabis or codeine. There are c 9000 imprisoned for possession or supply including 613 for possession of class B drugs. Our prisons are overflowing with people as well as drugs. Lets reduce the numbers in them by taking out the addicts and low level dealers who need help in the community to turn their lives around.