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HomeNewsDrug abuse is a crime issue, not a health issue

Drug abuse is a crime issue, not a health issue


The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner is on a mission to legalise drugs within his area. Last year his office organised a meeting of experts to advise on what his area should be doing in response to a burgeoning drug problem. As a result the Commissioner, David Jamieson, wants heroin to be prescribed more widely to addicts, for a ‘fix room’ to be set up where street-purchased drugs may be taken without fear of arrest, and for the police to be trained in administering the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Hardly surprising that the Commissioner should come to such radical conclusions because six of the organisations contributing to the meeting had already publicly dedicated themselves to liberalising UK drug laws (Transform, Law Enforcement against Prohibition, Release, Volteface, Anyone’s Child, and representatives of The Loop, which carries out drug testing at festivals). The meeting was opened by Baroness Molly Meacher, who has long campaigned for legalisation. Totally absent from the meeting and, it seems, from Mr Jamieson’s vision of what his area needs is any mention (and I do mean any mention) of drugs prevention. This is a Police and Crime Commissioner who feels that the best that can be done is to try to help individuals use drugs with lower levels of personal harm rather than try to reduce the overall level of drug use.

To suggest, as Mr Jamieson has done, that drug use should be dealt with as a health issue is a thinly veiled appeal to liberalise and ultimately legalise drug use within the UK. This is a proposal that may draw rousing applause from a police and prisons service that want nothing more than to rid themselves of the burden of responding to a drugs problem, but it is a proposal that would ultimately see an increase, not a decrease, in the overall level of drug use within the area. It may sound comforting and reassuring to say that drug use should be dealt with as a health issue, but the reality is that unless there is some level of personal cost and inconvenience that flows from the personal decision to use or sell drugs, the scale of that use and the size of that market will inevitably increase. It is the legitimate responsibility of the enforcement agencies to make drug use and drug dealing a less appealing rather than a more appealing choice. You might also wonder what the role of health services could be in the case of those people using illegal drugs who are not yet addicted to the substances? The answer, of course, is very little. Treating drug use as a health issue, in the case of people who are not addicted, simply makes no sense other than as a way in which some agencies, most notably those involved in drugs enforcement, can offload their responsibility to protect communities from the impact of illegal drugs.

Recently in Glasgow the local Health Board’s plans to develop a similar drug consumption room were stymied by the most senior legal figure in Scotland advising that such a centre would contravene UK drug laws, leaving staff at risk of arrest and prosecution. What we are increasingly seeing now is unaccountable public officials pursuing public policies that would severely undermine our drug laws and doing this under the cover of announcing ‘bold and imaginative initiatives’. This is a very dangerous development.

The UK drug problem actually grew out of liberal opiate prescribing by private medical practitioners in London in the 1960s, and the US is currently reeling from an opiate addiction epidemic that has been fuelled by liberal prescribing of opiate drugs for pain medication. The lesson from the UK and the US is that when it comes to drugs use the health professions and liberal prescribing are as much part of the problem as part of the solution. The people of West Midlands should rightly expect all of their services to be fully engaged in tackling their drug problem – that means the health services, the education, social workers, the police and prisons. It does not mean advocating a range of proposals led that would see the area become the centre of legal drug use within the UK.

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Neil McKeganey
Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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