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Sunday 11 March 2007

Narrow minds are the real obstacle in fight against drugs

BECAUSE "politicians in all parties - perfectly understandably from their point of view - run scared on almost everything to do with drugs", the British RSA (aka the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) set up a Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy, which produced a report last week that is as valid for Ireland as for the United Kingdom. In Britain, in the words of the chairman, Professor Anthony King, "current policy is broke and needs to be fixed".

The same is true of Ireland.

The commission hopes that Drugs: Facing Facts will "encourage policy makers and those who seek to influence them to 'cool it', to debate the relevant issues, of course, but to debate them calmly, rationally and on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of panic, hysteria, political point-scoring and misplaced moral outrage".

Is there any hope, I wonder, that Grainne Kenny will download the report off the RSA website and read it in that spirit? Grainne Who? She's the international president of the Europe Against Drugs Network, who believes Gay Byrne should resign as chairman of the Road Safety Authority because he said fresh thinking was needed about drugs policy and that legalising drugs was one possibility that should be addressed.

I think Miss Kenny is the one who should resign. We are losing the so-called 'war' against drugs because too many people in positions of authority have closed minds.

The contribution of Noel Ahern, who is in charge of drugs policy, was to say, "Drugs are illegal, and that's the right way to have them. Any talk about liberalising drugs is irresponsible."

Well actually, Noel, quite a few drugs are legal.

One of the interesting aspects of the commission's report is its belief that demonising some drugs and not others is dishonest and counterproductive: policy-makers should be framing a Misuse of Substances Act which deals not just with drugs banned at present but incorporates alcohol, tobacco, solvents and over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

We need to assess how dangerous each substance is and educate people about them. A tab or two of ecstasy on a Friday night is less dangerous than binge drinking and less addictive than tobacco.

The commission did a lot of fresh thinking. "We are not all 'men in suits' and none of us is remotely unworldly," said the report. Although "our commission includes, to be sure, a businessman and two professors, it also includes a recovering addict, an East End community worker, a specialist provider of drugs treatment, a doctor working in public health, a former Scottish health minister, a director of social services and a senior police officer."

In 335 pages the report goes back to first principles, examines the facts about drugs, analyses present policy and looks at alternatives and makes recommendations.

ITS conclusions were based on two core beliefs. First: "Drugs and other psychoactive substances are simply not going to go away. People have used them for thousands of years, widespread demand exists, supply is plentiful, and the illegal-drugs industry, not to mention the alcohol, tobacco and legal-drugs industries, are among the best-organised and most market-oriented in the world."

Second: "If drugs cannot be eradicated, then the principal object of public policy should be to reduce as far as is humanly possible the great harms that they may cause - and far too often do cause."

This would mean treating addiction to any substance as a health condition and a social problem, not simply as a crime problem. Many people use illegal drugs and do themselves no harm. While the report did not call for decriminalisation, it questioned the idea of total prohibition. Money could more usefully be spent on education and treatment than on vainly trying to keep drugs out of the country.

The good news was that the results of a comprehensive poll showed that public opinion on many drug-related issues "is far better informed and therefore far less dogmatic than many elected politicians and journalists apparently think it is. In our view, policy makers in Britain have considerably more room for manoeuvre than many of them seem to think they have. It is up to them to take advantage of their room for manoeuvre and to show creative leadership and greater honesty in dealing with these difficult issues."

There is no reason to believe that the Irish public is any less well-informed than its British counterpart. Is there any brave politician out there who will consider coolly the words of the great Gay: "How long do you keep on repairing a car that is not working before you say maybe there is another way of doing this?" Or - like Noel Ahern and Grainne Kenny - are they happier keeping the lid on debate and wasting money on a failed policy?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards