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Neil McKeganey: We are winning the war on drugs. Don’t let Clegg lose it


When senior politicians and political parties are on the skids you can be sure that they will grab every headline going in an attempt to rejuvenate their flagging political fortunes. And so it is with Nick Clegg, who in his moment of mid summer madness, has called for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs.

Those who are caught in possession, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, should be given treatment rather than custody. Forget for a minute that hardly any drug users actually get custody on the basis of drug possession alone, this is a policy that is staggeringly ill-informed and ill-timed.

It is ill-timed because the UK is witnessing the biggest reduction in drug use since we began recording the same. In the face of a reducing drug problem who would sensibly suggest removing one of the current pillars of our drug strategy? If it isn’t broken don’t try to fix it.

It is ill informed because to suggest that nobody under any circumstances should be given a custodial sentence for drug possession is effectively to give the green light to personal possession and use of every drug that is illegal now, and any drug that may be developed in the future.

Hard not to consider that there is at least a risk that removing even the possibility of a custodial sentence would mean a steady increase in levels of drug use. Remember too that this is a policy proposal not for the next twelve months or two years but conceivably for decades or at least until sensible policy prevailed.

The Deputy Prime Minister has suggested that drug users should be given access to health services rather than be sent to prison. An alternative policy might have been to underline the importance of providing high quality drug treatment in prison but that is not Nick Clegg’s inclination since he does not want drug use to be a criminal act at all.

To suggest that drug users should be given treatment rather than custody is to assume that drug treatment has something to offer most drug users, but the opposite is in fact the case. While there are a wealth of drug treatment services in the UK that treat those who have become addicted to illegal drugs, it is important to recognise that most of those using illegal drugs are not (yet) addicted to them. Rather, they are using these drugs because they like the feelings they induce.

So what does treatment have to offer those who are using illegal drugs by choice? The answer is next to nothing. So if treatment has nothing to offer the non addict drug user, and prison is not to be an option for those who have drugs in their possession, you are effectively green lighting drug use and drug possession and you are in all but name calling for a policy of drugs legalisation.

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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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