On Friday I was invited to comment on BBC1 TV News following Nick Clegg's announcement on drug law reform. I of course accepted. His suggestion is that we decriminalize certain drugs and thereby free up resources to focus on treating addiction as an illness instead of as a crime. I couldn't agree more with his intention, it is his method I wholeheartedly challenge.
Earlier in the week David Cameron had announced his position on the subject, which is to promote drug treatment, mentoring, and financial consequences for those on benefits who refuse treatment. On this subject, my vote is with Cameron.
I think to decriminalize drugs is a massive mistake, and one that is impossible to come back from. It focuses at the wrong end of the problem and will create a culture of drug abuse that the next generation will pay for with their lives.
Please do not be so naive as to believe that in decriminalizing certain drugs you will be able to regulate them. All it will do is endorse the market place and generate growth in the drug industry, creating opportunity for low cost and black market goods, synthetic evolutions and copies.
Perhaps I am being cynical, but clearly decriminalizing certain drugs will have a positive impact on crime figures, as well as the tax coffers, and it sure makes headline news. But to me it doesn't make sense and I am tempted to invite Nick Clegg to experiment on his own kids first as for me the law has a duty to represent a line in the sand that reflects a moral code. It's what we in the therapy business call an ethical code, or 'best practice.' As a parent I appreciate the law's support in indentifying and providing clear boundaries around practices that are unhealthy, damaging or dangerous to my young, whether that's related to e.g. guns, knives, theft, bullying, drugs, drink driving etc.
Addiction is an illness and should absolutely be treated as such but to focus on the drugs as if they represent addiction is the first mistake. They are simply ONE manifestation of this devastating condition as Addiction is in people not in packages. Of course if you take enough of an addictive substance you are likely to become addicted, and adolescents are high risk as they are curious and often feel invincible. But it is generally more about the person and their emotional experience that causes the addiction: the obsession, the compulsion, the loss of moral value, the shame and fear, resentment and isolation. The clue lies in the word 'using'... there is a payoff, a reason, a motivation and I have seen many get into serious trouble using skunk alone, though in my experience it doesn't remain only skunk for long.
I believe the government should focus on such impenetrable areas to reform relating to education of emotional intelligence, building a valuable sense of self, creating and encouraging practical opportunities, challenging poverty through motivation and experience, creating communities through supporting families. I believe in a grass roots approach that will take time but that is sustainable as it fosters a healthy culture. It would mean cooperation and collaboration between the political parties for the greater good. I want a miracle.
There are many unsung heroes working tirelessly in places like schools where there is an unparalleled opportunity for intervention, where eg a charity like The Place2Be would welcome the government shoulder supporting the kind of work they provide: listening, making children feel safe and heard, emotional education, intervention, parental training and support. This is where the focus ought to be invested rather than in the eye-catching quick-fix posited political reform of decriminalization.
When we look around the world we compare our own drug policies with that of other countries and seek to follow. Perhaps the blind leading the blind? Why not pay attention to what we do already know instead?
In this country we have seen smoking go from socially acceptable, 'cool' and widespread to being recognised as the greatest single cause of illness and premature death in the UK, with about half of all smokers dying from smoking-related diseases. About two in three smokers want to stop smoking but really struggle to do so as they are addicted. Controlling where people can/can't smoke helps as it actively reduces opportunity, and regulation relating to sales reduces promotion. But it's far too little too late for many. Treating smoking related disease costs the NHS upwards of £5billion p.a. (conservatively estimated in 2009) and many have lost their lives. How did this habit gain such powerful and widespread hold I wonder...? If we knew then what we know now would we have done the same...?
Perhaps thanks to the regulatory controls now being introduced the right message is at last being transmitted to our own children, and our children's children, who I hope can grow up in a world where cigarettes do not inhabit such a central part of society...
Alcohol too has its pernicious grip. Readily available, or should I say widely promoted, alcohol takes its place as our society's lubricant without which we apparently fail to enjoy ourselves, interact nor escape the stresses and pressures brought to bear by our ambition. Such is its apparent import that despite statistics that illustrate the damage it can cause, the laws changed to allow 24hr drinking. See us now in 2012 fighting a binge drinking and alcohol dependent population costing the NHS £3 billion pa for disease, transplants and consequences of drunk driving car crashes. The Department of Health acknowledges this crisis and admits to working hard to find ways of regulating alcohol consumption including offering advice and minimum pricing. A drop in the ocean...
Smoking and alcohol are another two primary manifestations of addiction. They have got out of control and we are paying a heavy price - nationally and individually. Where is the wisdom is adding drugs to this list? Surely we should rather focus our attention on supporting the extraordinary dedication, insight, vision and experience of those on the ground who know what needs to be done.
We need to accept there is no quick fix and to work together, political parties and nation, to create a sustainable solution where people know and value who they are, and achieve. It's simply not good enough to throw in the towel because a law or rule doesn't seem to be working even if it is under the guise of bold reform. Think again. Look hard at the causes. Our society is unhappy, impoverished, with little opportunity nor future, literally willingly throwing each day away. Drugging them as if to keep them off your backs is not the answer. Instead meet them with a challenge, a boundary, support, education and opportunity - give them treatment, mentoring and tough love, and invite them to stand up and live.