Saturday, 5 September 2009

A solution to our drink and drug problem?

Just as sometimes it is necessary to be cruel to be kind, on the issue of drug and alcohol abuse, I feel it may be necessary to be illiberal to be liberal. In the run-up to my presentation at the fringe event "What can be gained from thoughtful drug policy reform?" I have been struggling with the question of how to regulate the sale of drugs. I have to balance the goals of keeping drugs away from children, eliminating illegal markets, protecting our European neighbours from hard drugs from our cheap, legal market, discouraging drug tourism and presenting a regime that would be acceptable to British voters.

For all of these goals I feel strict regulation is required and the strictest of regulation can be achieved by total state control of the trade. I cannot leave these substances in the private sector and our young people at the mercy of their marketing techniques and profit motive.

I suspect the people of the country would rather we err on the side of more state control rather than less. The whole policy would be quickly endangered if any newspaper could print the headline "Drugs epidemic sweeps country". It is for this reason that I am seriously considering recommending a kind of ration book/ID card. Yes you're all liberals and ID cards are evil, but please hear me out on this.

Any UK resident could apply for a card (drugs tourism already covered). It could be argued that no identifying demographic information should be linked to the card. Rather the card is just a means by which excessive purchasing could be prevented and health interventions could be offered. We would need to prevent people buying quantities that could only be interpreted as being for resale. For example, customers could be sold a week's supply of cannabis, a weekend's supply of ecstasy or cocaine etc. (exact quantities would have to be determined by people more knowledgeable than myself). When customers are identified by the computer system as being regular and/or heavy users, the pharmacist could be prompted to discretely offer an appointment with a suitably trained professional in which health and social issues stemming from drug use could be discussed. The system would also allow statisticians to effectively monitor drug use among different demographic groups and suggest health and education interventions to ensure people are kept safe in areas of concern. For example, if there was a rise in ecstasy purchases in an area, the pharmacists could be checked for best education practice, and the clubs could be assigned health workers to distribute education material about safe use. If any drugs epidemic were to threaten to appear, the knowledge on where and in which demographic population would be vital in organising a suitable response.

I would also suggest extending the card purchasing scheme to off-license and supermarket purchases of alcohol (and cigarettes?). Firstly, it would reduce the stigma of holding the card. Many young people would dread certain relatives finding a card that identified them as a drug user. If the card also allows sale of alcohol, then many parents would deem it acceptable, and so young people would be more likely to turn to the newly legal drugs market. Secondly - and this is where you might think I'm getting too illiberal - this scheme could be very effective in keeping drugs and alcohol out of the hands of the under-age. If each drugs or alcohol purchase was recorded by this card system, then it might be possible for separate packages of drugs or alcohol to be identified as being purchased by a specific person. Say the police come across some under-age drinkers in a park, they could scan an identifier on the drinks container and find out that Joe Bloggs of 10 Bloggs Road purchased that beverage in the last few hours. Legal purchasers could be strongly discouraged from providing any drug to the underage by this system. I am by no means committed to this idea, it is just something I think could be considered (it does after all mean that identifying demographic information would have to be linked to the card, which contradicts my earlier point). The shock of this could be lessened somewhat by allowing the nearly of age to consume under suitable adult supervision. For example, lowering the drinking age to 16 for specially licensed premises. Most voters would probably agree that children should be prevented from taking drugs. This might be the best way of making this happen.

To cover the point about leakage overseas, I would suggest heroin should not leave the clinic at which it is sold or prescribed, and problem crack and heroin addicts could be sold cocaine or heroin with a subsidy that diminishes over time to encourage cessation of use. No drug that could leave the premises would be sold at a price that would so undercut the illegal market as to make export worth the risk. Again, I am not completely committed to this either and would be interested to hear what others think.

No comments: