Policy Scope

Change the record

The popular mantra of drug policy failure is drowning out our successes, says Marcus Roberts

The idea that drug policy is ‘failing’ appears to have wide currency among MPs and journalists. On 8 September, a headline in The Observer proclaimed ‘Drug laws are not working, believe 75 per cent of MPs’, while noting that the poll commissioned by the UK Drug Policy Commission found ‘little consensus on changing existing laws’ among MPs. The Observer piece concluded with a quote from one David Cameron MP, who had said back in 2002 as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee that Britain’s drug policy ‘has been failing for decades’, explaining that ‘drug abuse has increased massively, the number of drug-related deaths has risen substantially and drug-related crime accounts for up to half of all acquisitive crime’.

Now, if I was an MP or journalist or local politician with no specialist interest in drug policy lending an ear to the ‘mood music’, I think one of the dominant themes I would pick out was that ‘drug policy is failing’. It is a slogan that unites those left-wing liberals (and right-wing libertarians) who lobby for reform of drug laws with those social conservatives who attack the legacy of our drug treatment system – although, of course, they have opposing views of what is failing and why.

Is it true? Not really. As Roger Howard, chief executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission, commented in The Observer, ‘drug policy in the UK has had some good achievements, like keeping HIV rates low among drug users and getting more people into treatment’, adding ‘but it’s now clear to many people that we need some fresh thinking’. Fresh thinking is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean a fresh start.

Consider David Cameron’s charge sheet from 2002. Is drug abuse ‘increasing massively’? On the contrary, the evidence says that drug abuse is now falling. According to the 2010-11 British crime survey, last-year use of any illicit drug fell from 11.1 per cent in 1996 to 8.8 per cent in 2010-11, and among 16 to 24-year-olds from 29.7 per cent in 1996 to 20.4 per cent in 2010-11. In 2010-11 there was also a fall of nearly 10,000 in the number of heroin and crack users coming into treatment over a two-year period.

Are drug-related deaths rising? The Office for National Statistics says there was a fall of 3.5 per cent in England and Wales in 2011 compared to the previous year, the third consecutive year that the numbers were down. What about acquisitive crime? It’s falling, and there is overwhelming evidence that drug treatment reduces offending and reoffending (see the NTA’s Treat addiction, cut crime for chapter and verse).  

Now not everyone will accept all of these figures at face value and there are no grounds for complacency, but this is far from the picture of policy failure that is getting across to many politicians. At a time when we need to be making the case for investment in drug and alcohol services in tough financial times, we need to be talking about our successes too. At the moment they can sometimes seem to be ‘hidden in plain view’.

Marcus Roberts is director of policy and membership at DrugScope, the national membership organisation for the drugs field, www.drugscope.org.uk.