UK’s drug strategy: common sense and controversy

Britain today published it’s new drug strategy (pdf here or here). It’s actually pretty sensible, but it will probably be howled at by footsoldiers on both sides of the War On Drugs. On the one hand, the government plans to cut benefits (welfare payments) for addicts who refuse to turn up to treatment programmes. That will annoy some people, possibly the same rather sensible commentators who will be annoyed by a renewed focus on supply reduction and prosecution of users “committing crime to feed their addiction”. In my mind, though, bribing people to get/stay in treatment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it has the effect of forcing more investment in treatment so that the government can actually meet its goal of providing treatment for everyone on both drugs and benefits.

On the other hand, the plan commits the government to treatment and prevention which follows evidence, not ideology. This includes “injectable heroin and methadone where they have been proved to work and reduce crime”. This will enrage people who believe that taxpayers shouldn’t be buying smack for addicts, even if it keeps the thieves from their doors.

Interestingly, amphetamines have fallen out of favour with Brits since 1996, but cocaine use (including crack) has been on the rise. Not surprising: a gram of coke costs almost exactly the same now as it did 20 years ago in absolute terms, while wages and indeed benefits have risen sharply. (More about supply, demand and pricing of drugs in this Home Office report.)

The strategy argues for better methadone maintenance programmes in UK prisons, to which I say hear, hear. Predictably, since this comes from the Home Office, there’s nothing on rolling our needle exchange programmes in jail (though it seems Scotland may take the initiative on that soon). I guess you can’t have it all. One of the things I do like about the strategy is that it doesn’t have a pigs-might-fly “Drug Free Britain” goal. Rather, it focuses very clearly on problem drug use. This, for example, from the Home Secretary’s foreword:

“Our ambition is clear. We want a society free of the problems caused by drugs”

I can think of a couple of other nations that would do well to adopt such pragmatism.

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This post was published on 27/02/08 in War on drugs.

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