Last night, I was honoured to take part in the Tom Olsen Lecture at St Bride's Church. The annual lecture was established in 1991 in memory of Tom Olsen, a former Sunday Telegraph journalist and wine correspondent, with the aim of focusing on the themes of freedom and responsibility. At St Bride's I argued that drugs laws are an ineffective barrier to the dangers associated with taking illegal drugs.
Here is an overview of my key points:
The use of the criminal law against those who possess and consume illegal drugs has little positive effect and has many negative consequences, while the use of the criminal law against those who supply illegal drugs has been not been driven politically or carried out effectively. As a result, drugs laws as currently constituted and implemented are an ineffective barrier to the dangers associated with taking illegal drugs
Possession and consumption of drugs
The vast majority of drug users cause little harm to themselves or to others. They earn their money legitimately, their drug use is under control and the negative impact they have on themselves and others is minimal. This undermines the premise that there is a grave danger that drugs laws are an essential barrier to.
For the overwhelming majority who take illegal drugs, drugs laws lack credibility and the way they are enforced is inconsistent and confusing, making them an ineffective barrier.
There is tension between politics and science, which draws the drugs classification system into disrepute. Politicians do not want to "send the wrong signal" about how harmful drugs are and so resist reclassification of drugs downwards whilst scientists want to be objective about relative harm, even if it means downgrading a drug. As the drug classification system is a fundamental part of UK drugs laws, this brings the law as a whole into disrepute.
On it's enforcement, police officers now have discretion as to whether someone is warned for possession of cannabis on the street or is arrested, it is at the discretion of the custody sergeant at the police station whether the person arrested for possession of illegal drugs is cautioned or charged and it is at the discretion of the local police commander whether there is a zero tolerance policy towards drugs possession is adopted or not. People are quite rightly confused about what will happen to them if they are caught in possession of illegal drugs.
Drugs laws ineffective barrier to those in danger
For the minority for whom drugs are a danger, both to themselves and to those around them, drugs laws are an ineffective barrier. For those who have a tendency to become addicted to substances, including legal substances like alcohol, illegal drugs do present a grave danger. The trouble is, most of those who become addicted to drugs, through a combination of social circumstances and an in-built propensity to become addicted, are rarely put-off by criminal sanctions or the threat of them. If they are not in treatment and they are dependent on drugs, they will do anything it takes to get their hands on them. They tend to be unemployed and unemployable and commit vast amounts acquisitive crime in order to fund their habit. These are the users of illegal drugs that cause most harm to society and for whom the barrier that drugs laws provide, is the most ineffective.
Police have been half-hearted because their efforts aren't recognised
Whether dealing with possession or supply, the police service has been half-hearted in its efforts to deal with illegal drugs as it has been given very little incentive to do so. This is largely because of the inability of governments to establish credible performance indicators - the more effort the police put into arresting people for drugs, the worse the problem appears to be in the crime statistics, which neither the police nor politicians like. Many futile attempts have been made to provide meaningful indicators of police performance against the use and supply of illegal drugs but to no avail.
Take one street dealer out, another pops up
Drug dealing can and should be tackled using criminal sanctions but the way the police go about addressing the problem is often localised and ineffective with potentially serious negative consequences. Street dealers, those of most concern to local people, are taken-out by the police, often after weeks of covert surveillance, only to be replaced within days by others. Where those who supply the street dealers are taken-out, violent turf wars often erupt as rivals try to take over the area and someone almost always does and the problem remains.
There are effective ways that drug dealing networks can be attacked and they should be. For example in the gap between the decline of Irish Republican terrorism and the rise of Al-Qaida, security services worked with the police to take out whole drug supply networks, from street to importer, with some success.
Criminal sanctions don't address addiction
The more difficult they are to get hold of and the more expensive we can make harmful drugs, the less people will take them but that is not the grave danger we face from drugs. The real problems caused by illegal drugs come from those who are addicted, and that issue cannot be effectively addressed by criminal sanctions.