19 August, 2010

The silly war on drugs

Sir Ian Gilmore, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Surgeons, has publicised a report in favour of the decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs. Gilmore is not a nutcase, and nor is his co-author Nicholas Green, a barrister.

I think the first thing to be said about this is that we have lost the war on drugs. Cannabis is increasingly used by quite young children. In many of our housing estates heroin and crack dealers walk unmolested by the authorities. The middle classes, among whom cocaine use is increasing, are scarcely an example. Every month a new drug is invented, classified by the authorities and nothing done to stop its use. We can’t carry on like this, as Mr Cameron famously said. The thing is, what are we going to do?

The option of an increased police involvement and a crack down (if you’ll excuse the pun) no longer seems to exist. We can’t afford it, we haven’t the prison space, and society won’t tolerate the massive assault on its civil liberties such an operation would imply. Nor is it likely to work.

Since 1961 it has been legal to kill yourself in the UK. That is to say I am allowed to buy a knife and slit my throat (yes there are medical and police resources required here, too), jump off Beachy Head, drive my car into a wall. I can also damage and kill myself through obesity, cigarettes, and alcohol. For all these, if I am still alive at the end, I am treated free of charge by the NHS.

So it must be with drugs. If someone wants to take them that is their lifestyle choice (the Government has, I believe, a duty to warn the public of the dangers as long as this is a serious cost to the NHS). Let’s free up the prisons, free up the police and concentrate our diminished resources on treatment. Portugal decriminalised personal drug use ten years ago and consumption has gone down, not up, as addicts come out into the open and are treated.

The war on drugs is not a moral crusade: heroin is not inherently worse than alcohol. Let’s have some clear thinking for a change and debate Sir Ian’s proposals sensibly.

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