Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Evidence-based drug policy: Think of the children!

In the next few days I will be submitting a motion to conference calling for an impact assessment to be carried out on current drugs policy and for expansion of heroin maintenance treatment programmes across the country. The motion calls for current policy to be compared to its alternatives including more stringent prohibition, decriminalisation of possession and use, and strict control and regulation by the government.

There will undoubtedly be some who will seek to present the latter option as "legalisation" and encourage us to "think of the children" as they go on to describe some drug-addled dystopian nightmare scenario. Should I be in attendance when this argument is presented I will likely fix my gaze upon the doubter and say with steely determination "No. You think of the children, for concern for their welfare in central to my argument."

In this country at present the chances of a child being drawn into the lifestyle of a problem drug user are entirely at the mercy of fate. Do they go to the wrong party? Do they fall in with the wrong crowd of friends? Do they fall in love with the wrong boy? At present there are many many thousands of people out there who would profit from luring teenagers into the use of heroin or crack cocaine. They could be dealers who need a new customer to replace the one that died from an overdose, went into prison or somehow got clean. They could be a young man who's never been any good at stealing things but has always been able to get the girl, and who needs a young lady to earn his drugs money in a way that he can't. Or they could just be a desperate soul in need of a friend and who only knows one way to make people hang around. These people are all around us - the unofficial heroin and crack marketing board - unconstrained by ethical guidelines or regulations. Free to ensnare any unsuspecting teenager that comes within reach.

It is absolutely essential that we neutralise this very real threat. With youth unemployment at its highest for many years, too many young people are vulnerable to temptation. If we are to wage a war on drugs it is essential to neutralise the recruiting sergeants. To do this we just have to examine their motivation. The vast majority of low-level dealers are user-dealers. They need money to buy drugs. The boyfriend pimps need money to buy drugs. The desperate friend needs some sympathetic attention. All these motivations can be addressed through better drug treatment services, the best of these - as demonstrated by considerable scientific evidence - being heroin maintenance treatment.

Decades of prohibition have utterly failed to stop this country's children becoming heroin and crack addicts. The vast majority of the street prostitutes that as a society we largely ignore were children to whom the path to addiction was left open. My primary motivation in submitting this motion is to block that path to the present generation, many of whom are no doubt walking down it as I write.

Give the user-dealer heroin and he no longer has to deal. Give enough of his customers heroin and his supplier or his boss can no longer make enough money for drug dealing to be a viable business. Give the street prostitute heroin and they no longer have to work the street. Give their boyfriends heroin and they no longer have to ask them to. Drawing users into heroin maintenance services allows some level of intervention in the problems that represent barriers to a fulfilling life. They won't have to commit crime or prostitute themselves to fund their habit. They could start looking for a job. If they have children, they can hold them as their number one priority.

"Think of the children" is all Barbara Harris ever does, and she really doesn't see this as a problem. Barbara Harris is the head of the "charity" Project Prevention, which is scouring the deprived areas of our nation's cities looking for addicts to sterilise. Her charity will give each sterilised addict £200, which will often be spent on a few days worth of heroin. I could easily criticise Barbara for the fact that her charity is indirectly funding the Taleban, but I'd like to draw her attention to the scale of the problem. There are around 10,000 children of problem drug users in the care system in this country, and many thousands more growing up in households affected by drug use. Is it in the children's interests to regard their parents as lost causes, people who cannot be trusted to turn their lives around and make a success of themselves? Or should we rather treat these people's condition as a medical ailment and treat it with the best treatments available? Rather than putting children into care or preventing their existence, should we not aspire to stabilise their parents lives, give them the assistance they require to make a go of it, and allow the love for their children and the love they receive in return to be a massively positive motivating factor in their reform. Addicts needn't be bad parents. It's just our current approach to drugs makes it very, very difficult for them to be good ones.

Despite the very real dangers of heroin and crack, perhaps the most frequently expressed concern is that cannabis use will suddenly spread like wildfire amongst the nation's children were it to be legalised. If it were just to be legalised then I'm happy to admit this is a possibility, but legalisation is not what is being proposed. What should be proposed is a strictly regulated market. I personally would favour cannabis only being available from licensed pharmacists, with a wide choice of varieties of different strengths and different ratios of active ingredients. One thing that is also essential in regulation is an age restriction. At present teenagers have fairly easy access to cannabis, and seem very eager to experiment. Cannabis strains are stronger now (prohibition always incentivises potency) and the scientific evidence suggests that teenagers are especially vulnerable to effects on brain development that might predispose to psychosis. Ideally, if drugs were to be regulated by the state, then the market for illicit dealers shrinks considerably, and the illicit dealers who would remain would be isolated, hated figures trying to deal to the only remaining illegal market: children. With the prison population dwindling in the aftermath of effective treatment for dependent drug users, there'd be plenty space for people who might try to exploit the nation's youth for profit.

So please, the next time the Daily Mail or a red-faced Conservative backbencher exhorts you to "Think of the children!", politely ask them to do the same.