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How to Lose the War on Drugs, Successfully

30/04/2013 12:52 BST | Updated 29/06/2013 10:12 BST

Everyone, even the most ardent of anti-drug zealots, is aware that the war on drugs is being lost. It's been clear for some time, from well before Bush came into office and increased anti-drug spending to historic levels, perhaps even before Reagan arrived with his 'zero tolerance' approach in the Eighties. The statistics are, and always have been, clear; as government focus on the war on drugs has increased, so have the numbers of drug users and drug-related deaths.

But this never stopped it being fought. In fact, as failure became ever more apparent, each successive Republican government approached the war on drugs with renewed vigour. Why? Not because they thought it could be won, that much was clear, but because no one knew how it could be lost. If this is war and drugs are the enemy, defeat can only mean one thing- drugs win. This is, of course, a form of madness, a spiral of rhetoric that has drawn out its enemy from an abstraction and cast it as real, only for it to become so. As drugs have become further and further polarized from the state, they have agglomerated a world of crime, picking up the marginalized, the addicted, the greedy and the plain psychotic and pitching them directly against the rest of us. In calling for war, America has created an enemy. Everyone, from the tax payer to the addict, is paying the price.

Luckily there is an escape route, and the US government seems to be waking up to it. It involves not admitting failure- they have been doing that for decades- but shaking free of the madness; calling out the whole war as bogus and starting again. This is the essence of America's new Drug Policy Reform 101, the details of which were released this week. It doesn't call for drug legalization- there is enough evidence to show that that is not the answer. Instead it demands something that sounds obvious but, in terms of policy, could be genuinely radical; 'drug policy reform should be rooted in nueroscience, not political science. It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.'

The methods outlined to achieve this are simple. The approach to drugs will be bought down to a local medical level. GPs will be trained to screen for addiction through a series of questions. If necessary they will perform what is termed a 'brief intervention', a procedure much less sinister than its name suggests, in which the doctor works with the addict to try and change their way of thinking in regards to their substance use. Finally, if necessary, the doctor will provide the addict with a series of treatment options. This, coupled with a justice system that recognises that you 'can't arrest [your] way out of the drug problem' and treats drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal offence, promises to help an extra 32 million Americans out of drug addiction by 2020.

At the root of the reform is a logic Britain would do well to learn from. Drug addiction needs to be tackled from the bottom upwards, rather than the top down. For this to happen, our view of drug addiction must be grounded in the reality that it is a brain disease, not a moral weakness or the manifestation of a criminal mindset. Then, critically, our general health practitioners must be trained up to recognise and understand addiction, and the appropriate treatment facilities put in place for them to refer patients too.

The spokespeople for the NHS seem to be aware of this. Dame Sally Davis, the Chief Medical Officer of the NHS, recently reported that research showed how a focus on criminalisation 'was deterring drug users from seeking medical help'. This year's British Medical Association report 'Drugs of Dependence' supported her findings and argued that GPs must 'confront patients they suspect of drug addiction and offer them treatment without fear of prosecution.'

But these ideas are still a long way away from the reality. Most heroin and crack addicts find their way into treatment either through accident and emergency or the criminal justice system- the stops towards the end of the line- by which time the damage, physical or social, has often been done. Those who do go to their GP are often met with inexperience- only 3% of British GPs have been properly trained in drug addiction and alcoholism, the rest receiving just 1/2 a day training over the course of their medical studies. At our addiction helpline, every day brings calls from addicts at their wits end, who have either tried to go through their local health services only to find suitable help unavailable, or have been too afraid to make the visit to their GP.

It is infuriating to have America, whose mad war on drugs helped dig this hole in the first place, come up with the first sensible solution in years. But The Drug Reform Policy 101 is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. We need to follow their example- train up our GPs in addiction, remove the threat of persecution for those seeking help and, like we do with other diseases, try and catch it early rather than waiting till it may be too late. The war on drugs has built stigma, fear and a certain glamour around drug use. The 21st century approach must strip these illusions away and reveal addiction as the disease science has shown it to be. This way we'll have not an enemy, but a health problem that can be tackled.