16 Oct A Fresh Approach To Drugs

The UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) has published its final report which makes some important recommendation for reform.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Perhaps the most interesting content is in chapter five “Recommendations”, pages 149 – 151 which is reproduced below.

Review the process for classifying controlled drugs

Given the challenges to the way in which drugs are currently classified, including the rejection of expert advice on some classifications, such as for ecstasy and cannabis, we have concluded that the 40-year-old ABC classification system and the process of providing advice to ministers and parliament has significant weaknesses. For many people it has lost credibility.

There should be a wholesale review both of the Misuse of Drugs Act and the underpinning classification system. Such a review ought to examine the possibility of devolving decision-making responsibility to an expert body which could be accorded a statutory role to make classification decisions, with appropriate democratic safeguards.

This could enable it to revisit the relative classification of individual drugs, based on assessed relative harms, in order to end up with a more coherent framework. The ABC system is not perfect but it has an inherent logic, even if there is often only limited evidence upon which decisions can be based. The Misuse of Drugs Act could be amended to confer delegated decision-making powers either to the ACMD or to a new statutory body.

Reduce sanctions for drug possession

For the reasons outlined in Chapter 3, the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence. Criminal sanctions could be replaced with simple civil penalties, such as a fine, perhaps a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body, or if there was a demonstrable need, to a drug treatment programme. The evidence from other countries that have done this is that it would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use, while providing opportunities to address some of the harms associated with existing drug laws.

Given its relatively low level of harm, its wide usage, and international developments, the obvious drug to focus on as a first step is cannabis, which is already subject to lesser sanctions than previously with the use of cannabis warnings. This is something which has been gathering momentum in other countries. If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs.

These changes could potentially result in less demand on police and criminal justice time and resources. Given the experience of other countries, our assessment is that we do not believe this would materially alter prevalence levels, while allowing resources to be spent on more cost-effective measures to reduce the harms associated with drug use. We would expect the net effect to be positive.

Address production and supply

Some people argue for the removal of criminal sanctions not only for possessing drugs but also for their production, trafficking and supply. Among the suggested advantages of this are increased tax revenues, putting a potential end to the criminal control of supply chains and associated violence, and an increased level of safety for users of controlled drugs.

However, other than possibly for cannabis, we do not believe there is sufficient evidence at the moment to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offences of most drugs. One of the lessons from the tobacco and alcohol markets is that commercialisation can lead to some disastrous consequences for the health and wellbeing of the public. As a result there have been moves in the alcohol and tobacco markets to put more trading restraints and regulations in place to reduce the effects of commercialisation.

We appreciate that some will argue that the risks of the commercialisation of controlled drugs could be contained with careful regulation and that our position does nothing to deal with the negative consequences of the current system in places such as South or Central America, Central and South-East Asia or increasingly parts of Africa. It also would not address existing problems with drug contamination and unpredictable dosage levels. But our assessment is that such a change could lead to some hugely negative unintended consequences, and should be treated with caution.

For the most ubiquitous drug, cannabis, it is worth considering whether there are alternative approaches which might be more effective at reducing harm. For example, there is an argument that amending the law relating to the growing of it, at least for personal use, might go some way to undermining the commercialisation of production, with the associated involvement of organised crime and the development of stronger strains of cannabis (‘skunk’), that we have seen in the UK and other countries in recent years.

Fragmenting production could undermine organised crime networks. Perhaps the most expedient course to take here would be to re-examine sentence levels and sentencing practice to ensure that those growing below a certain volume of plants face no – or only minimal – sanctions. The impact of any such move would need to be carefully measured and evaluated so policymakers could make informed decisions about future actions.