Neil McKeganey: Staying tough on drugs

Cannabis use, among other drugs, has fallen significantly. Picture: Getty
Cannabis use, among other drugs, has fallen significantly. Picture: Getty
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National policies need to be about reducing the impact of illegal drugs on Scotland, not initiatives that could result in their wider use, writes Neil McKeganey

IN MONDAY’S report from the Westminster’s all-parliamentary group on drug policy reform, we have what has become the latest in a long line of calls for the legalisation of illegal drugs. For the advocates of drugs legalisation, the arguments seem disarmingly familiar and persuasive: our drug laws have failed to stem the flow of illegal drug use; many of those substances that are currently illegal are less harmful than tobacco or alcohol and, therefore, we should pursue an approach that legalises these and other forms of drug use.

The trouble with this view is that it is almost entirely based on the premise that drug use under a legalised or regulated regime would not significantly increase. That is a bold assumption and one for which there is little evidence. The supporters of legalisation cite Portugal, where all drugs for personal use were decriminalised in 2001. Troublingly, however, while some positive benefit has flowed from that policy change, drug use among young people in Portugal has increased rather than decreased and there remains a stubborn black market in drug supply within the country. Drugs decriminalisation does not appear to have been quite the rosy road of unbroken success that many might have wished and others have promoted.

But even if a plausible case can be made for the benefits of drugs decriminalisation, the timing now for such a bold policy change in the UK seems wrong. Most recent data from the UK is showing a marked reduction in almost all forms of illegal drugs use, with the exception of cocaine, which is rising.

We are recording lower levels of cannabis use, heroin use, LSD use than for decades. In the face of such reductions it would seem odd to implement a policy of decriminalisation or legalisation that would hold out the very real prospect over time, even if not immediately, of a marked increase in the levels of drugs consumption.

Those who favour drugs legalisation or decriminalisation often argue that a marked increase in drug use would be unlikely because most people who wish to use illegal drugs can do so already with minimum inconvenience. However, this is not to say that if the current legal impediments to such drug use were to be removed that there would be no increase in the number of people interested in at least experimenting with drugs, confident in the knowledge that they would be breaking no law in doing so. Would it matter if there were an increase in the number of people experimenting in this way with various substances?

The answer to that question really lies in the fact that many of the controlled substances are proscribed precisely because they are harmful (irrespective of whether they are more or less harmful than the legal drugs) or because we suspect they may be harmful but do not yet have the evidence to assess their precise level of harm, as is the case with many of the “legal high” drugs.

Any population level increase in the consumption of such drugs as LSD, heroin, or amphetamines would unquestionably lead to an increase in the number of individuals experiencing problems as a result of drug use. Some of those individuals would become addicted to the substances that have a high potential for addiction or become psychologically traumatised by those drugs that we know can cause major mental health problems.

That scenario would be less worrying if we had effective drug treatment services able speedily to lift people out of the depths of their addiction or psychological trauma. The reality is quite the reverse, with drug treatment services struggling to support individuals in their recovery and most people leaving drug treatment services in a continuing state of drug dependency. Recovery from drug dependency is a long, difficult and costly road that involves major heartache for the drug user and his or her family.

It is a great shame that so many of our influential leaders seem persuaded of the view that the best we can do in tackling our drug problem is to reduce some of the legal barriers to drug use. If we are to tackle our drug problem, we need effective drugs prevention, effective drugs treatment, but we also need effective drugs enforcement.

There is an analogy here that is rather revealing. We have made major inroads in the UK in reducing the overall level of smoking by a combination of public health education, social sanction and the banning of smoking in enclosed public spaces. Nobody should be under the illusion that the contribution of legislation in banning smoking was anything other than key in reducing the prevalence of smoking and reducing the overall level of tobacco-related harm.

It is ironic that just as we have come to see the benefit of combining education, treatment and legal sanction to reduce tobacco consumption, some of our leading parliamentarians seem convinced of the benefits of dismantling the legal barriers to wider drug use.

No country in the world has boldly discarded drugs enforcement and the UK would be unwise to go down such a road when we are beginning to see the success of our current tripartite approach combining treatment, prevention and drugs enforcement. We can do better in all of those spheres than at present, but that does not mean we should look to the government to become the major supplier or regulator of much wider forms of drugs consumption.

The all-parliamentary group has come up with another equally questionable proposal for dealing with the proliferation of so called legal high drugs, namely to make the producers and suppliers of those drugs subject to trading standards legislation within which they become legally responsible for the quality and safety of the drugs they supply.

I can see why the producers of those drugs might prefer operating under such a system, but could we possibly accept their assurances in terms of quality and safety, especially where those drugs are being produced in laboratories in distant parts of the world?

What would happen in all probability is that issues of safety would come a long way second to issues of profit in the manufacture and sale of those substances and we would see thousands of young people effectively being used as guinea pigs, consuming substances that they believe are relatively harmless and which we have legalised, but which in reality neither we nor they actually know what chemicals were even in the drugs they were consuming.

Drug use has taken a tremendous toll on Scotland – and continues to do so. We have communities that have effectively been taken over by the drugs economy.

Our aspirations and policies need to be about reducing the extent and the impact of illegal drugs on Scotland and not about pursuing initiatives that could easily result in their wider use.

Just as we have led the way in international efforts to reduce the availability and consumption of alcohol and tobacco, we need to be no less bold in our efforts to reduce the use and availability of all of the currently illegal drugs. Only then will Scotland be lifted from the shadow of a drugs problem that is substantially worse than virtually anywhere else in Europe.

• Neil McKeganey is director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow