Drugs, Criminal Justice & TreatmentCourtesy Transform - Working for an effective drug policy
"Tough on drugs" - but who exactly are we being tough on?
It is important to make the distinction between the way with deal with problematic users of legal and illegal drugs. We are tough on illegal drug users, in particular heroin and cocaine. By contrast we are not at all tough on users of the main legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol. This distinction is not based on relative harm but entirely due to legal anomalies. Why are people being treated within the criminal justice system?
It is the prohibition of drugs that leads many dependent users to offend and come into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. Due to their illegality the street prices of heroin and cocaine are vastly over inflated. Dependent users are consequently drawn into offending to fund their habits. By contrast there is almost no property crime being committed by the UK 12 million tobacco addicts 1.5 million alcoholics, or 1 million prescription tranquilliser addicts to support their habits. This is because their drugs of choice are relatively cheap and available.
We know from the NTORS study that for every pound;1 we spend on treating drug-misusing offenders, we save pound;3 on criminal justice costs. We can only assume that enforcing drug laws is largely counterproductive expenditure, which would be better directed into treatment based interventions of known effectiveness.
Does coerced/criminal justice based treatment mitigate against best practice?
An alcoholic or tobacco addict seeking help will discuss treatment options with their GP or treatment specialist. Such treatment is un-coerced, agreed between doctor and patient and will follow established best practice. In contrast treatment within the criminal justice system is coerced, and usually based on enforced abstinence (by way of drug tests linked to punishments/rewards) and may take place within prison walls. This reflects the fact that treatment decisions are being shaped by the criminal justice system rather than doctors.
Why the emphasis on abstinence?
Alcohol prohibition in the USA emerged in response to the temperance movement. Needless to say it was a complete disaster. The criminal justice system emphasis on abstinence based treatment reflects this same mentality. There is a wide range of treatment options available for treatment of problematic drug users and by no means do they all involve the immediate and complete abstinence enforced by much of current policy.
Prohibition of drugs is the dominant cause of 'drug related crime', rather than the effects of the drugs per se. The drug laws are largely responsible for bringing problem drug users into contact with the criminal justice system.
Whilst the option of coerced treatment is undoubtedly better than no option at all, coercion and abstinence enforced with intrusive urine testing often mitigates against best practice in treatment.
It is in everyone's interest that people who need treatment receive the best that is available, and with the shortest delay.
There is a clear need for the following:
- A reallocation of the drug budget from criminal justice to health based initiatives, specifically the funding of a major expansion of drug treatment services so that problem users can get the help they need when they need it.
- Large scale drug of choice prescribing to eliminate offending to fund dependent drug use, and to minimise the harm involved in drug use.
- A serious debate on alternatives to prohibition that will produce improved outcomes on key indicators of drug related crime and health problems.
- A cost effectiveness audit of drug law enforcement.
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