Parliament is debating UK drugs policy right now. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.
The last time the Home Affairs Committee looked at drug policy – holistically at least – was in 2002.
And it’s making headlines because the debate follows a watershed report published today that finds no “obvious” link between prison sentences and reducing illegal drug use.
The report says: “The criminal justice system cannot remain an expensive way of giving the public a break from offenders, before they return to commit more crimes. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of drugs policy.”
In other words, locking up drug users doesn’t work.
This breaks with 43 years of sacrosanct convention; it contradicts the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act under which illegal drugs are classified and their use criminalised.
So why is there is such a disconnection between this report and the Act? How have we been wrong for so long?
Drugs and prisons
Well, we haven’t. “You can get anything in prison” is a truism so often bandied about – by convicts, ex-convicts, non-convicts and Jeffrey Archer alike – it’s thought to be, well, true. People who go into prisons do not necessarily stop taking drugs.
In 2010, the centre-right think tank, Policy Exchange, published a landmark report, ‘Coming Clean: combating drug use in prisons’. which found that 35% of the total prison population could be taking drugs at any one time.
Official government figures put drug use in prisons at 7.8%. The Policy Exchange report argued the government’s random mandatory drug testing programme is flawed, hence the discrepancy.
Today’s report states drug use is “a major problem in the prison system” but one that is acutely worse in certain prisons: “A recent Report on HMP Durham by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons found that as many as one in three prisoners tested positive in random tests, and 13% told inspectors that they had developed a drug problem while in prison.”
The 2010 Coming Clean report also found that the use of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin were often the preferred drug of choice because they were harder to detect in mandatory drug tests.
Ergo, you could go in to for prison for cannabis possession (up to five years) and come out a heroin addict.
Today’s report corroborates the trend of people switching to harder drugs in prison, to a disturbing scale.
It cites a survey by the Prison Reform Trust that found that 19% of prisoners who had ever used heroin reported first using it in prison. That’s nearly one fifth.
Drug use in the UK
Yet, drug use in prisons aside, according to today’s figures, overall drug use across England and Wales has fallen. Drug use among the adult population is at 8.9%, says the report, the lowest level since measurement began.
According to the Home Affairs Committee report: “There is no real understanding as to why the levels of drug use have fallen in the past 16 years.”
The report also suggests that illegal drug use is linked to social equality: “We see a correlation between countries that have the least generous welfare states [based on levels of unemployment benefit, sickness pay and pensions: how much you can get services without access to the market and being able to pay for things]tending to have the highest rates of cannabis use among their population. There is also a correlation between the least generous welfare states having the highest rates of injected drug use.” Are we a more financially equal society since 1996? No.
One answer to the supposed fall in drug use could be that people are turning to legal highs instead, the use of which is reportedly on the increase, particularly in the UK.
Another answer could be that the government’s report is wrong.
The recent British drugs survey 2014 for the UK, published earlier this month, (which therefore includes Scotland and Northern Ireland, today’s government report is on England and Wales,) found that nearly one in three British adults has taken an illegal substance and a fifth of those still do so.
Confused? Me too.