What should be the aim of drugs policy? The consensus is that we should seek to reduce harm. A new approach is needed.

28 Jan 2015

By John Paul Rathbone

There are few subjects more emotive than the so-called “war on drugs” and drug legalisation. They are very hard to think about clearly and very easy to get angry about. Nuance tends to get drowned out in the roar of strong opinion, whether from the families of addicts, fundamentalist libertarians or — in a recent commercial addition to the debate — the public relations officers of the US’s foundling legal cannabis industry.

How police policy should respond is the subject of the multiple papers and three rounds of seminars on “Modernising Drug Law Enforcement” published by the IDPC, a consortium of well-respected drug policy NGOs, with the support of two British think-tanks, Chatham House and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Its contributors and main audience are senior police officers and government officials. Yes, drug reform has gone mainstream. Even the US has officially dropped the phrase “drugs war” (although not much of Asia has: this month, Indonesia executed six small time drug-traffickers, including a Canadian and a Brazilian).

The US spends over $40bn a year on arresting and imprisoning users, making drug prohibition a surprising example of a big government programme.

The starting point is to decide: what should be the aim of drugs policy? The consensus is that we should seek to reduce harm. That means a change of focus from, say, increasing drug seizures or incarcerations to pushing levels of violence down. This approach can lead to obvious conclusions, such as the merit of heroin-replacement therapies. In the UK, as much as 50 per cent of acquisitive crime is committed to feed a drug habit, usually heroin. Stabilise the lives of these most chaotic drug users, therefore, and not only do crime levels fall, it also becomes possible to think about weaning the addict off drugs. But prioritising harm-reduction also leads to more surprising recommendations. Online drug marketplaces such as the Silk Road, for example, may be preferable to tolerating drug dealing in public places, as these tend to concentrate violence.

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