A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Drugged up Britain?

Government attempts to persuade thousands of young people to stay away from drugs have failed and done nothing to curb the soaring popularity of illegal substances, a devastating report has warned. The number of young people using cocaine and cannabis has increased rapidly over the past 20 years despite high-profile campaigns, such as the £9m 'Frank' initiative aimed at 11 to 15-year-olds, according to an in-depth examination of official efforts to tackle Britain's chronic drug problem. It is also expected to claim that Britain's 'unusually severe drug problem compared with that of our European neighbours' is linked to social and economic deprivation, that punitive laws have had little effect and that police efforts to disrupt the drugs trade have also failed. The study, 'An Analysis of UK Drugs Policy', has been written by two internationally respected experts, Professor Peter Reuter of Maryland University in the US and Alex Stevens, senior researcher at the European Institute of Social Services at Kent University. The report cites an array of official statistics charting the steady growth in Britain's drugs culture. For example, according to the 2005 British Crime Survey, 40.4 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds have used drugs at some point in their lifetime, as have 49 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds, 51.6 per cent of 25 to 29-year-olds and 45.8 per cent of 30 to 34-year-olds. While cannabis use by young people has fallen recently, it remains around 50 per cent and consumption of cocaine has increased. The Home Office rejected the new body's findings. A spokesman said research showed that giving young people information about drugs, rather than adopting a 'just say no' approach, was a more effective way of warning them about the dangers.

Young people in Britain are reported to be taking up to five times more illegal drugs than their European counterparts. Britain topped the western European league on ecstasy and amphetamines and came second for cocaine and cannabis. Nine per cent of young people in the UK said they had tried ecstasy, compared with only 2.8% of Germans, 3.1% of French and 1% of Belgians and Swedes. And as many as 16% of British young people said they had tried amphetamines, compared with 1.6% of French people and 4% of Germans. Spain topped the league, but French, Swedish and Belgian young people were half as likely as the British to try the drug. Around 36% of Britons admitted to taking cannabis - the most common illegal drug in Europe, compared with 25.7% of French people, 21% of Germans and 22% of Spanish people. A smaller Danish survey showed cannabis use running at 43% among teenagers and people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Heroin use was low across Europe. In most countries, less than 1% of people had tried the drug. However, it accounted for the most health problems; the report says there are up to one million heroin addicts in Europe. Some countries have noted a small rise in its use. Drug abuse in Britain is worse than anywhere else in Europe - Young people in the UK are more likely to take cocaine, Ecstasy and amphetamine than those in any other country on the Continent, but they are also using cocaine in quantities and with a frequency unmatched anywhere else in the world apart from the U.S.

It's pleasing to see, in the storm of commentary over Professor David Nutt's sacking as the government's chief drugs adviser, that everyone outside politics now recognises the importance of scientific evidence in devising laws. But a strange reasoning twitch has appeared, in the arguments of politicians and rightwing commentators. Science can tell us about the molecules, they say, about their effect on the body and the risks. But policy is separate: a matter for judgment calls on social and ethical issues. Only politicians, they say, can determine the correct way to send out a clear message to the public. It is not a matter for science. This is wrong. Alongside research into the risks of drugs, lots of work has also been done on the deterrent impact of different laws, classifications and levels of enforcement. As every piece of research has its own imperfections (and nobody has yet conducted a randomised controlled trial on drugs policy) you can make your own mind up about whether you find the results compelling.

One strategy is to compare different countries. A World Health Organisation study from 2008, published in the academic journal PLOS Medicine, compared drug use and enforcement regimes around the world. It was clear: "Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones." Alternatively, you can compare drug use between states within one country, if they have very different enforcement regimes, as when parts of the US liberalised their laws a few decades ago. Another line of evidence comes from "before and after" studies, when laws are changed. Cannabis use in the UK dropped after cannabis was moved from class B to class C. Prohibition of alcohol in the US from 1920 to 1933 is the most famous example: alcohol use fell dramatically when prohibition began, and the price of alcohol rose to 318% of its previous level. By 1929 this initial impact had begun to wear off and rapidly: alcohol consumption had risen to 70% of pre-prohibition levels, and was still rising when prohibition was repealed, and the price had fallen to 171% of pre-prohibition levels. This reversion to old patterns of use occurred despite escalating spending on enforcement, up 600% over the same period. There are many more examples.

This is not an unresearchable question. There are other factors at play in all of these studies, and if they are not sufficiently rigorous for the government, or a brief informal dip into the literature is not enough, (it shouldn't be) then they should commission more research: because it is a tenet of evidence-based policy that if you discover a gap, you commission work to fill it. This work is important for one simple reason. If you wish to justify a policy that will plainly increase the harms associated with each individual act of drug use, by creating violent criminal gangs as distributors, driving the sale of contaminated black market drugs, blighting the careers of users caught by the police, criminalising three million people, and so on, then people will reasonably expect, as a trade-off, that you will also provide good quality evidence showing that your policy achieves its stated aim of reducing the overall numbers of people using drugs.

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