In the 1980s and 90s two successive waves of heroin use swept Britain resulting in massively escalating levels of addiction, deaths, crime, and HIV. At the same time the use of other drugs, cannabis, cocaine, etc was also increasing. There was a widespread sense of crisis with the fear that control of our cities would be lost to drug gangs, drug related crime would continue to grow exponentially, and injecting drug use would become a major route for the transmission of HIV across the population. The drug treatment system was under resourced with lengthy waiting times and high levels of drop out. In 1992 the Major government launched the first national drug strategy "Tackling Drugs Together" to grip these problems.
Fast forward to 2014. Drug use is falling, down from 12% in 2004 to 9% now. The use of heroin peaked at the end of the 1990s at 450,000, it is now 260,000. Young people are shunning heroin with typical users now in their 40s rather than the vulnerable teenagers of popular imagination. Drug related crime has fallen dramatically with investment in treatment initiated during the Blair government enabling offenders and other users to access treatment in days rather than months. The quality of treatment has improved with lower drop out and improved outcomes.The Home Office estimate 30% of the reduction in crime since 2000 is attributable to ready access to treatment which currently prevents 4.9m crimes a year. Levels of HIV among drug injectors is among the lowest in the world, 2% compared to 20% in the USA and 70% in parts of Russia, a legacy of the harm reduction policies pioneered by Norman Fowler as health secretary in the Thatcher government.
None of this featured in last weeks critique in the Huffington Post of the failures of current policy from Caroline Lucas and Julian Huppert, or in their speeches in last Thursdays parliamentary debate. Instead we had a tired unevidenced assertion that policy is a failure, in Nick Clegg's dramatic language, "on an industrial scale". Why are outcomes that would have been a cause of celebration in 1992 consistently derided as failure?
The major difference between 1992 and today is that the crisis has abated. There is no longer a plausible argument that drug misuse is spiralling out of control with potentially disastrous consequences for social stability. The absence of crisis frees up ideologues of right and left to posture either about the "failed war on drugs" on the left or the "calamitous consequences of 1960s hedonism" on the right.
The value of the drug debate as a badge of moral and political affiliation is too potent to allow inconvenient truths to intrude. The reality of less use and less harm has to be airbrushed out of the debate if the power of the opposing polemics is to be sustained.
The commentariat's self indulgence is buttressed by a political/media culture in which no government policy is allowed to succeed. Ministers are wary of claiming success, fearing charges of complacency today, and ridicule tomorrow if events turn for the worse. Perhaps surprisingly, success is more likely to be buried in Whitehall than failure. Civil servants, policy advocates, and service providers have learned to sidestep inconvenient good news to sustain an ever evolving narrative of failure which is the best route to maintain the high media and political salience on which future funding, policy influence and employment depend.
To highlight the hidden successes of current drug policy is not to deny the continuing challenges and deficits. In England drug related deaths rose alarmingly last year after falling significantly since 2008. The immediate and long term health risks of "legal highs" present an unknown threat. The lack of integration between drug and mental health services is a continuing scandal. Locking people up to protect them from themselves is difficult to justify. But the reality of our drug problem today is that fewer people are using drugs, fewer are becoming addicted, and the social and economic costs of drug use are shrinking.
Any evidence based change to policy needs to acknowledge its successes as well as its deficits. It isn't enough to dust off arguments from the sixth form debating society as MPs did in the commons this week. The calls for a radical change in policy do not sit well with a significantly shrinking problem. Proponents of change need to explain, not only how reform will prevent imprisonment of users, a laudable aim, but also how they would prevent increases in use and harm arising as a consequence. To steer a sensible pragmatic evidence based route through these policy challenges requires all the evidence to be on the table, including the surprisingly good news that some people would prefer to see ignored.