Saturday, 27 August 2011

Ineffective, costly and counterproductive - Tom Lloyd on the Misuse of Drugs Act

Extract taken from an interview with Tom Lloyd, former Chief Constable and lead of the International Drug Policy Consortium's law enforcement project. The interview was conducted by SSDP's Education Officer Jess Bradley at our 2011 conference.

I was a police officer mainly in London for over 30 years and I have experience of the implementation of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, from the start of my service in 1974 to the end in 2005, in both urban and rural areas. I came to the conclusion over that time that our implementation of the Misuse of Drugs Act has been ineffective, very costly and counterproductive.

Ineffective because in that time drug use has soared from a relatively low base in the very early 70s of 2000 heroin users to what is now estimated to be a quarter to a third of a million problematic drug users - some of them multiple drug users but certainly many of them addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. By any standards that has been a failure of a stated attempt and intention to reduce drug consumption.

It has been hugely costly and I have seen that cost at first hand in terms of the number of police officers and their equipment that have been used to enforce the drug laws. That amounts to at least £10 million a year spent by the criminal justice system enforcing the Misuse of Drugs Act.

And thirdly counterproductive, many people have unnecessary criminal convictions incurred as a result of their drug use. This does not help people deal with any problems that they may have with drug use, it hinders them. The fact that drugs are subject to law enforcement under the act means that people are actually discouraged from seeking help should they need it for their drug addiction.

What also happened is that a huge criminal enterprise has grown up on the back of the so called illegal drugs market. And it is estimated that criminals in the UK are profiting to the extent of £6 billion every year, internationally the figure is estimated to be US$320 billion, it is a huge criminal trade and the criminals can use that money to corrupt law enforcement officers and anybody else they need to in order to increase their profits and make sure that they evade prosecution.

I maintain the view that we should be enforcing the law in relation to serious and organised crime, even if drugs were controlled and regulated in the future and there was no profit in them there would still be serious and organised criminals active in them, in this country and elsewhere. We should be spending our money on pursuing them, not on pursuing users of the drugs that are currently prescribed.

We also have a problem of health being very badly affected by the fact that drugs are prohibited in this country and round the world. The state of the market which is uncontrolled, other than by criminals, is such that very little attention is paid to the purity or strength of a product. Which is why, in the UK alone, we have about a thousand deaths a year from accidental overdoses or from impurities. Recently there has been Anthrax contaminating heroin which has been on UK streets. Blood borne diseases such as HIV AIDS and hepatitis B and also transmitted, often through the sharing of needles and whilst many drug users might be aware of the health risks of sharing needles they are often driven to do that by their need to take the drug before they, for example, get arrested and have the drug taken away from them by the police.

So overall we have a situation where the drug price is high leading to criminality, theft, shoplifting, robbery, and of course the activities such as prostitution to pay for one’s illegal drug habit. We have health issues, we have extreme costs to the criminal justice system, there seems to be very little in favour of maintaining the status quo.

The most common argument is that many of the drugs which are used are harmful. This is a relatively weak argument as there are many other drugs that are seriously harmful, such as alcohol and tobacco, which are not subject to law enforcement - although they are subject to some control and regulation, unlike drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

The people who support the status quo will also argue that the law has a strong deterrent effect. Whereas if we moved to a system of control and regulation then a signal would be sent out which would result in a dramatic increase in the consumption of drugs. Surveys don't support that view and studies in a number of countries have shown that the main factors associated with drug use are cultural, societal and peer pressure and at most the fact that drug use is illegal may account for something like a 20% or a fifth of any deterrent effect. It is very difficult of course to quantify that absolutely and certainly in countries like Portugal where there has been de jure decriminalisation of personal drug use there has been no surge of increase in uptake of drugs many of the nay-sayers predicted.

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