Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Dr C S J Fazey, University of Liverpool


  1.  The idea that there can be a single policy is inappropriate. A policy that may be appropriate to one illegal drug may or may not be appropriate to all illegal drugs. There is a need to differentiate between illicit drugs from the outset, and not to seek apply universal guidelines that may be appropriate for only one of them. Cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin may all need to be treated differently from the policymaking point of view.


  2.  Based upon the Government's own figures and those of reputable surveys, as well as on the number of drug-related deaths, then the answer must be no. But this is not to say that policy has had no effect. It can be argued strongly that the situation would be very much worse were the policy not in place.

  3.  However, some aspects of policy need to be implemented more effectively. For example, in-depth drug education courses should be embedded in healthy lifestyles courses that should then be examinable. There is much evidence of failure in drug education courses and a lack of impact on the intended audience. Short courses aimed at giving information about the harmful effects of drug use/misuse may satisfy the needs of parents, teachers and police, as with the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programme: but the evidence suggests that they promote only a short-term increase in knowledge; in the long term, they have little effect on the behaviour of young people. These programmes, and many like them, are pronounced a success even before they start, but their evaluation is, on the whole, methodologically prohibitive because there are too many variables at work to isolate the effects of one particular programme.


  4.  The first issue here is what is meant by decriminalisation? The options are:

    (a)  complete legalisation;

    (b)  decriminalisation of some parts of the trade, that is to say some aspects would not be liable to criminal sanctions—but which aspects and which, drugs? Is it their cultivation, manufacture, trafficking , distribution or consumption—again for which drugs?

    (c)  cultivation, manufacturing, trafficking and distribution to remain criminal offences, but possession not subject to imprisonment.

    (d)  as (c) above, but possession up to a specified amount (albeit an arbitrary amount deemed, say, an "average" consumption over a certain short period) not subject to legal proceedings.


  5.  There would be an immediate increase in the consumption of illicit drugs that did not attract a legal sanction. At present, the likelihood of being apprehended is by far a greater deterrent than the potential punishment available. Therefore, there might be a switch, say, between alcohol and previously forbidden drugs, as well as an increase in their use. The use of drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis might not increase if current users perceive that their chances of being caught are low, so the potential number of new users might be low. What would probably happen is that there would be an initial rise in consumption due to curiosity, but that the numbers would then fall back. The biggest change might be in buying habits. People would buy in larger quantities for cheapness because they no longer feared being arrested for being in possession with intent to supply.

  6.  The question then arises as to whether such an increase in consumption matters. Again, one can take a different view for different drugs. Is an increase in cannabis or ecstasy consumption a greater problem than the risks already taken by young people? Death rates are often cited as a reason for not making drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy more readily available, but the statistics suggest that the risk of drug-related death has been exaggerated. Although every drug-related and avoidable death is a tragedy, the number of young people and children killed each year in their own homes or in accidents far outweighs the number of drug-related deaths.

  7.  The case of heroin is very different. Greater availability would mean, paradoxically, fewer addicts in the long term and certainly fewer deaths. This view is based on my research going back to the mid 1960s in the first heroin prescribing clinic in the UK, on the evaluation of drug clinics in this country for the Government in the 1980s, and visits to, and examinations of, various other treatment clinics around the world during my time with the UNDCP. The big surge in the availability of illicit heroin in the UK coincided with the operation of the 1967 Act. A few over-prescribing GPs were dealt with by denying the right of any GP to prescribe heroin to heroin addicts unless licensed by the Home Office. Initially, it was policy to issue licences only to psychiatrists working in a hospital setting, not because it was in the best interests of the patient, but to control the GPs. Over time a group of psychiatrists based in London decided to change existing policy and practice, substituting oral methadone for injectable heroin. Those who created this policy then imposed it on the rest of the medical profession by drawing up guidelines of best practice, based on their own views. Most heroin addicts are not mentally ill and do not need a psychiatrist, but sympathetic treatment and injectable heroin. The prescription of heroin is not a medical issue but a political one, as the Swiss and Dutch governments will testify.

  8.  There are about 120 doctors with a license to prescribe heroin for addicts, but not all do so. Even those who do, do so only for a small number of patients. The main reason why more do not prescribe heroin is that they fear the draconian measures that others have suffered after doing so.


  9.  Research findings, including my own, show that the amount of crime would be reduced. Obviously, if the possession of certain drugs for personal use were ignored, tolerated or legalised, there will be fewer arrests for possession. But if heroin were to be prescribed on a much wider basis, then people would not need to commit crimes to get enough money to buy the drug illegally. There is much evidence from many parts of the world that heroin addiction is related to a substantial amount of crime.

September 2001

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