Comment: We’ve a duty to find other ways of dealing with drug misuse

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Picture: Getty
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Neil McKeganey’s key concern with legalisation and regulation of drugs appears to be his assumption that use and abuse would rise. This is a legitimate concern, but itself assumes punitive prohibitions are an effective deterrent – the evidence for which is strikingly weak.

McKeganey provides none. Comparisons between countries with different enforcement regimes show no clear pattern, nor is there evidence that increasing penalties decreases use, or vice versa. The influences on drug misuse appear to be mostly social, cultural and economic; with enforcement policy having, at best, a small impact.

McKeganey supports his argument with some curious examples. Portugal is presented as an example of failed legalisation, but has not legalised markets for any drugs (only decriminalised possession for personal use).

This, of course, is why “there remains a stubborn black market in drug supply within the country”. Nor has its decriminalisation failed.

Since 2001 overall drug use rose at a similar rate to its neighbours, but more people accessed treatment, police costs were lower, and there were falls in problematic and school-age drug use.

Equally confusing, McKeganey then uses tobacco as an example of effective legal sanctions. But tobacco is not prohibited, nor are its users criminalised. It is completely different. Recent improvements in tobacco control are used by advocates of legalisation-regulation as a useful model of best practice (see Transform’s Blueprint for Regulation – ( ). Tobacco use has fallen through public education and improved regulation. These are the interventions, advocated by Baroness Meacher, Transform and others only possible under a legal regime.

We share the professor’s concern with drug misuse in Scotland, and his commitment to treatment, education and prevention.

There is good evidence such interventions deliver the reductions in drug harms we all seek. But prohibition also creates harms – criminalising users and fuelling a violent illegal trade. After 40 years of failure, it would be negligent again to reject meaningful exploration of alternatives.

• Steve Rolles is senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.