Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Daniel Stamp (DP117)

Executive Summary

According to a 2008–09 survey, close to 40% of UK citizens have used illegal drugs. In fact, 10% of us have done so in the last year alone. However, largely due to political pressure heaped on police to hit targets, we see thousands of citizens labelled criminals based on tenuous reasoning. Hordes of officers are sent to tube stations, along with sniffer dogs, in order to make easy arrests and boost their figures. Your average citizen is not interested in the police stopping people from merely carrying drugs, but would rather violent crime and robberies were tackled. If targets are to be maintained as performance indicators, there must be a method to separate the quality of policing. Catching somebody with a joint in their pocket should come way down on the list of police priorities. The decriminalisation of drugs would inevitably lead to increased police numbers in other areas, helping to protect and serve in a manner which benefits society.

Since the days of alcohol prohibition in the USA, we’ve seen how the outlawing of drugs (and I include alcohol as a bona-fide drug) does nothing to stem the tide of use. For the majority of the time it is just use, rather than “abuse”. Abuse is often thrown around to describe those who engage in drug use recreationally; often as a means of stoking the fears of many people across the land, rather than giving a fair portrayal of consumers. Some people enjoy fine cigars, some people enjoy alcohol, and a large amount of people prefer recreational drugs—most of which are scientifically proven to be less harmful, less addictive, and less problematic than the legal drugs which you can buy on every high street across the country.

1. We allow alcohol and tobacco (which account for some 150,000 deaths per year in the UK) as we realise that prohibiting people from partaking in things they enjoy is an unsuccessful way of dealing with the issue. In the case of alcohol, we tolerate the fact that 75% of A&E admissions on Friday nights are related to over-consumption. When alcohol deaths are combined with those due to smoking we see the total exceed 250,000. These figures are pushed into the realm of collateral damage, and not considered factors which should contribute towards the drug being made illegal.

2. A society must tolerate peripheral problems if it wants to give freedom to the majority who cause us no harm. For every town centre drunken brawl there are thousands of people who will pass the night without causing grief to another soul. This is certainly no less the case with the majority of illegal drug users. With the exception of people who are addicted to the likes of crack and heroin, there is relatively little social impact from the use of drugs. There’s an expected statistical distribution of users who mostly have no problems with their choice of drugs, and a very small minority who do have problems. We shouldn’t penalise and criminalise those who go about their business without impacting on the rest of society simply because a few unfortunate people succumb to addiction. We don’t do it with alcohol, tobacco, red meat, or sugary foods as it’s quite obviously an infringement on the rights of those who can indulge in moderation. The state should be there to massage those guilty of misadventure back into society, and not to monitor and imprison those who have self-control.

3. The idea that drugs fund criminal enterprise is real, but it needn’t be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the act of criminalisation turns a non- crime into a very real and very profitable crime. The irony being that it’s the government which effectively acts as a conduit for the drug gangs to prosper. The illegal drugs trade is estimated at £6 billin per year—making it the third largest industry, behind only oil and arms. With up to 30,000% profit margins, the illegality of drugs is an inadvertent gift to organised crime.

4. Safety is obviously paramount to the topic of narcotics. From the science select committee report of recent years we saw that the classification of drugs was completely skewed in relation to the actual harm they produced. Ecstasy, LSD, and cannabis were all at the lower end of the harm scale, while tobacco and alcohol stood rather alarmingly near the top of the scale. For completeness we must acknowledge that crack and heroin were classified as the two biggest threats of all drugs, but at the same time understand why this is almost a moot point. The scale used was based not only on relative physical damage, but also on societal impact. With increased funding for genuine addicts we would significantly reduce associated crime, ie theft and prostitution.

5. Indeed, the latest government pilot scheme accounted for a two-thirds drop in the amount of crime committed by those needing to feed their addiction. During the scheme, heroin was provided for addicts and they were allowed to inject on specified government premises. Given the dual use of crack and heroin by many addicts, a similar scheme for the former would surely see crime drop to more tolerable levels. Rather than bury our heads in the sand and dismiss things we don’t like, we should take a more practical approach and seek to find the best solution for our society, based on our knowledge of how humans will act. No amount of legislation will change the fact that a large proportion of people will engage in drug use, as it’s something they feel is their right. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to drugs is the equivalent to treating people with parking fines as you would those who have murdered. We know that certain drugs attract more problems, and even then, those problems can be reduced by proper treatment and education.

6. We have the theory explaining how manageable such a system would be, but there are also examples of nations who’ve have taken a softer approach to drugs, and haven’t suffered as a result. Let’s take the example of Portugal, which decriminalised drugs in 2001. This has seen a drop in the number of drug users, despite critics’ claims that it would increase usage. It’s also seen a doubling of the numbers being rehabilitated. With no prospect of criminal charges, those who have problems are more likely to come forward for help, and if you combine that with the aforementioned treatment programme being piloted in England, it’s a massive step forward in decreasing the number of addicts, and therefore the number of people needing to turn to crime in order to fund their habit.

7. With decriminalisation comes reduced rates of imprisonment, which not only creates more space to store genuinely dangerous criminals, but also reduces the burden on the taxpayer. The average cost of keeping somebody behind bars in the UK is £40,000 per annum. At a time when our economy is struggling a significant saving in this department is not to be sniffed at. We could look to avoid public spending cuts if we cut costs in relation to prisons, and also taxed drugs in order to gain an additional, huge revenue stream. Recent figures suggest that tax income from tobacco is worth some £12 billion to the government, with an additional £200 million being generated from taxing suppliers on their profits. A study conducted by the BBC suggested possible tax revenues from drugs to be £1–4 billion per year, with the cost of policing drugs reaching £16 billion, which equates to roughly 30% of our education budget.

8. The Portuguese system shows us the merits of decriminalisation, and when these are added to the taxable benefits of legalisation, the package on offer seems silly to refuse. The usual antidote to such glowing pro-legalisation claims is the fear that we will create a nation of drug abusers. The anti-drugs camp speculate about which of their doomsday predictions will come to pass, when the reality is that places like Portugal show trends heading in the opposite direction.

9. Those who seek certain types of enjoyment will still maintain a preference whether or not a substance is classified. Even amongst current users we see some people preferring more introspective, sensory-altering drugs such as psychedelics, while others prefer more energetic highs associated with amphetamine or ecstasy. It is simply not the case that something being available will attract people who have no interest in the first place. Likewise, banning a substance will not stop those who partake from seeking it out. Only now you have unregulated drugs and no income from tax.

10. A couple of cases are currently in the judicial system which see claimants challenging the uneven application of the current law. Their charge is that the decision to treat users of certain substances in a different way to others is in of itself illegal. Laws should not be created on a whim. The arbitrary decision to criminalise certain substances isn’t based on science. There are no studies out there which can state that alcohol and tobacco are fine, while somebody else should be persecuted because they prefer a different method of enjoying themselves. The law on narcotics lacks any foundation, and goes so far as to ignore most scientific evidence. The cases of Edwin Stratton and Alan Taylor are set to challenge the Misuse of Drugs Act in court for just this reason. The title of the act itself is somewhat misleading; it’s as if any use of drugs constitutes misuse. If such things were up for debate, there should be safe and unsafe limits, rather than a blanket statement that a given substance is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. How does one properly use drugs? With alcohol and tobacco we have suggested limits, even campaigns almost begging users to stop. There’s no defiant stance which finds a negative and then uses that as the sole focus. The impact on the individual is calculated, and recommendations are given alongside precautions.

11. The use of education and restrictions would go a long way to reducing harm to the individual. We know from lengthy studies that most currently illegal drugs are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, but there are clearly some limitations we should have on who can gain access to a given substance. Much has been made of increased psychosis being linked to stronger strains of cannabis, but as Professor Nutt concluded in his address to Kings College London, this has been exaggerated and shown to be false. Even tests to find the likelihood of death due to cannabis have ruled in its favour. The American DEA was ruled against in court after researchers tried to ascertain the LD-50 of the drug, which is the level at which 50% of animals die due to drug-related toxicity. Their experiments failed as they could not induce such poisoning from cannabis alone. They had to estimate the LD-50 at what equates to 1,500lbs of cannabis, smoked within a 15 minute period. The judge ruled that this showed it to be of negligible deadly potency, but his decision was vetoed by the government.

12. Age limits should be placed on drugs, so those in their formative years aren’t exposed to the genuine dangers of underage use. The chief concern of psychedelics is the ability to exacerbate pre-existing mental conditions. This link is rather unproven, but even if we ran with this as a danger, it would be no different to warning those with peanut allergies not to eat nuts. In the peanut we find a food stuff with the potential to seriously harm or even kill people, yet we allow it to be sold, on the understanding that it shouldn’t be denied to those who are fit to consume nuts. This is the approach adopted when it comes to alcohol and tobacco, and the same should apply to illegal drugs. A key point which is often excluded is the ability of pharmaceutical companies to produce analogues which are void of many of the negative side-effects of drugs. Drugs could be made safer still, with more controllable effects.

13. A government has responsibility to do what is best for its people. Despite media scaremongering, decisions should be made which reflect the truth of the matter. We’ve seen revisions of drug classification in recent history, but it’s time to put a stop to legislation formed by guesswork, and instead concentrate on the facts as presented to us by scientific research. There is a solid case for change and this needs to be addressed if Britain is to consider itself a progressive and world- leading nation. We’re already behind countries such as Portugal and Holland, and now have the luxury of learning lessons from their experiments.

14. Even the government’s own institutions and experts have concluded that criminalisation is both unjust and ineffective. Unfortunately, politicians such as former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith have decided to overrule scientific recommendations and choose policies which they think will be the least risky. Despite Professor David Nutt’s position as head of the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, his findings were downplayed, and his previous comments that ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse riding were censured.

15. The unfortunate irony of the government’s stance is that it creates a more dangerous world for both users and non-users. Regarding the latest attempt to ban GBL, this is a chemical which will now be pushed underground, as people inevitably seek-out their substance of choice. The problem with GBL is that it can be very dangerous if taken in incorrect doses. At present users can buy 99% pure versions of the chemical from reputable sources, which are forced to comply with British standards. The act of removing this source and replacing it with a black market version does nothing but create a greater risk for consumers. This is ignored as we are faced with emotive stories of how the drug harmed lives, or caused somebody’s child to suffer. Of course these are awful tales and reason for concern, but they are certainly not helped by knee-jerk, ill- considered reactions by politicians eager to be seen to do the right thing. If they really cared, they would do what’s best, rather than what makes for a nice headline.

16. The implications of legalisation are far-reaching. While there are always going to be downsides to a solution, we must be pragmatic and accept drugs as a constant which isn’t going to be improved with legislation. If Britain were to pioneer such an approach to drugs, we would be helping people across the globe. From farmers involved in the South American drug trade to people working for pharmaceutical companies in the West. Jobs would be created, taxes reaped, billions saved, police better used, drug purity assured, and lives would be saved. The legalisation of drugs would help create a better world for the vast majority of people.

January 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012