Welcoming a more humane approach to drug policy

By Bernadette Meaden
February 19, 2018

It is not often that a person elected to public office makes a policy announcement which is courageous, enlightened, and humane. So when the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson published ‘Reducing Crime and Preventing Harm: West Midlands Drug Policy Recommendations’ it really gladdened my heart. Inevitably, the Commissioner is now facing criticism and opposition, so it seems appropriate to make a small show of support.

The Commissioner's proposals include:

  • A formal scheme to divert those suffering from addiction into treatment and away from the courts.
  • Prescribing heroin in a medical setting to people suffering from addiction who have not responded to other forms of treatment. This will take the market away from organised criminals and stop people stealing to fund their addiction.
  • Equipping and training police officers in the administration of naloxone – a medication that can save the lives of people who have overdosed.
  • Establishing a Drug Early Warning Programme, to make the public, outreach workers and medical professionals aware of the impact of emerging drugs. The aim is to reduce the number of deaths.
  • Introducing on-site testing in night-time economy areas to reduce the number of deaths and increase the authorities' intelligence of drugs in circulation.
  • Considering the benefits of Drug Consumption Rooms, which allow people suffering from addiction to access clean equipment, medical support and drug treatment services.

These proposals are courageous, because it would have been much easier for the Commissioner to carry on treading the well-worn, ‘war on drugs’ path, the path on which deaths from drugs have soared in recent years.  We know that the media can hysterically portray any deviation from this path as tantamount to making drug-taking compulsory, but the Commissioner has decided to take the risk for the sake of his community.

The proposals are enlightened, because they really are based on solid evidence. The Commissioner has looked at the reality of what is happening in his community, rather unfashionably listened to the experts and, unfettered by ideology, devised sensible measures to improve matters. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/25205)

The proposals are humane, because they do not look at drug users as lesser beings who must be excluded from society, but as fellow citizens who have unenviable lives and need help, not punishment and contempt. How many people who succumb to addiction are self-medicating due to pain and trauma we know nothing of, or simply trying to blank out for a while the misery of homelessness?

Fortunately, the Commissioner is not on his own. More and more well-informed and experienced people are turning away from a punitive and counterproductive approach to drugs. Witness LEAP, (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). A growing number of police officers and people who may have worked for decades inside the criminal justice system are joining LEAP and advocating an alternative approach. They say, “Our mission at LEAP is to reduce the multitude of harmful consequences resulting from fighting the ‘war on drugs’, and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by reforming our drug laws. We’re advocates for an evidence based policy with a public health focus, including decriminalisation and nuanced regulatory models for all drugs.”

Yet still, politicians at a national level remain wedded to an approach that clearly isn’t working. UK drug-related death rates are among the highest in Europe and are increasing – reaching record levels for the last four years in a row. Between 2012 and 2015 the number of deaths from heroin and/or morphine doubled. Yet still, the government has been hostile to David Jamieson’s proposals. 

The irrational, unreasonable nature of the government’s approach is vividly illustrated by its response to the plight of six year old Alfie Dingley.  Alfie has an extremely rare condition which means he can have up to 30 violent seizures a day. His parents took him to Holland where he was able to take cannabis oil. This reduced his seizures dramatically – he went 24 days without a single seizure. Financially unable to continue their stay in Holland, Alfie and his family returned to the UK, where the Home Office says, "Cannabis is listed as a Schedule 1 drug…The Home Office would not issue a licence to enable the personal consumption of a Schedule 1 drug." To demonise a substance so completely that it cannot be allowed to ease a child’s suffering is not the behaviour of a sensible or rational government.

In Portugal, drugs were decriminalised in 2001. In 2015 in Portugal, there were three overdose deaths per million adults - in the UK there were 44.6 deaths per million. If the first duty of a government is to protect its people, then it seems clear that where drugs are concerned, the approach our government is taking needs to change, and people like David Jamieson could lead the way.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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