Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Drugs possession: A shot in the arm for punishment

(c) Cycle~
Last week, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) advised the UK government against criminalising drugs users. Instead, they suggested that offenders attend treatment and education programmes, and face alternative sanctions, such as the confiscation of driving licenses. Rather than imprisoning someone, which in turn may lead to less repeat offending, the government could save an estimated £45,000 a year.

Despite the potential benefits, The Guardian reported that the Home Office had quickly rejected ACMD’s proposal. A Home Office spokesman is quoted as saying:
"We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities.
"Those caught in the cycle of dependency must be supported to live drug-free lives, but giving people a green light to possess drugs through decriminalisation is clearly not the answer.
"We are taking action through tough enforcement, both inland and abroad, alongside introducing temporary banning powers and robust treatment programmes that lead people into drug-free recovery."
I am shocked by this statement. Companies push their legal drugs onto the market every bit as hard as criminals market their illegal products. They can lead to the same harms. Alcohol is freely available over the counter and every bit as harmful, if not more harmful, than other drugs. Cigarettes, and the large profits that the UK carte….sorry, government, earns from it, has led to burgeoning competition from illegal tobacco traders.

(c) Trexer
More pertinently, addiction needs to be discussed. Recovering addicts attend the likes of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to rid themselves of their addictions. More and more people are becoming addicted to gambling, with the majority coming from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and yet the UK government actively promotes gambling. Why?

Besides, the government does not appear to be basing their objections on any evidence that might suggest that current policy is working. In 2001, Portugal adopted a similar approach to their drug problems as that advocated by ACMD. The Cato Institute (2009) studied the effects of this policy and produced a white paper for creating fair and successful drug policies. Whilst Time critiqued the likelihood of it working in the USA, it does not contest its findings.

So why is the UK government failing to respond to their own experts’ advice and evidence? 

If the Conservative party are trying to placate those MPs and party members who are politically right of centre through a robust approach to law and order, then they need to take into account what it is the British public wants. Not what they think it wants.

In their recent study, “Custody or community? Exploring the boundaries of public punitiveness in England and Wales”, Roberts and Hough (2011) found that the public were far less concerned with imposing custodial sentences when mitigating factors were relayed to them. They found that a significant number of people would accept community penalties as retribution, even for fairly serious offences. The Transform Drugs Policy Foundation also has links to a number of opinion polls and studies that have been conducted in this field. Much of the evidence reveals that the public do not support punitive measures.  

At a time when austerity measures are beginning to exert additional financial pressures on the public, and at a time when individuals, families and communities are expected to economise, the UK government’s decision to reject this proposal out of hand is duplicitous. 

The government are happy to make cuts to public services, yet on this occasion, despite the financial savings, they will not reconsider this policy for their own political whims. Not only are the government harming those whom they imprison, and their families, but equally, the government is harming you and me. 
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