Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Drugs and punishment

The news that drug education and prevention services for vulnerable young people are facing massive spending cuts is par for the course for a New Labour government that lays the emphasis on punishing rather than treating users. Thousands of young people each year end up with a criminal record as a result of a brief flirtation with drugs while the number of people in prison on drugs-related offences has tripled since the 1990s. Treatment is often restricted to those who have committed an offence such as theft in a bid to raise money to buy drugs. This operates as a kind of perverse incentive to commit a crime in order to get treated. Now DrugScope, the leading drugs charity, says children with drug and alcohol problems or those at risk of developing them, will be hit by a 10% cut in government funding for prevention work in schools and amongst excluded pupils. Chief executive Martin Barnes said the cuts would be "disastrous for local services" and were "extraordinary" given that tackling drug and alcohol misuse among young people was an official priority. Services are being cut back and experienced qualified staff being made redundant or moved. Local grant allocations were announced by the Home Office in late February but the cut in funding and its severity has only just come to light. Figures for 2006 suggest 29% of 15-year-olds had taken a drug in the past year, with 4.3% saying they had taken a Class A drug. Drug services for young people are set to face further uncertainty next year when responsibility for them passes to local authorities, which will be free to use them as they see fit.

A recent study by the Royal Society of Arts showed how illegal drugs had been demonised by politicians and the media, and depicted as evil and a threat to society. The RSA report found that this approach did more harm than good. “Our view is that society’s approach to illegal drugs and to those who use them should be calm, rational and balanced,” the authors, which included a senior police officer, said. They described in detail a system centred on crime and the criminal-justice system when “what we should have is a more holistic system, one that explicitly acknowledges that any approach that has total prohibition as its principal objective is bound to fail”. A rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by our intense, consumer-oriented society. Globalisation has also created an international, large-scale business in drugs, which operates like any other industry. The market is highly competitive, which ensures that prices remain low and within reach of most sections in society. As the RSA report acknowledged: “There is no reason to think that the illegal-drugs business and its accompanying market can simply be closed down. Certainly all efforts so far to close them down have been dismal and often expensive failures.” Clearly, drugs treatment should be viewed as a health and social issue rather than a criminal system matter. It needs to be linked to services that enable people to overcome dependency such as affordable housing, education, employment, child care and family support. Expert agencies like DrugScope worked all this out a long time ago. But for a right-wing, business-driven government like New Labour, such an approach is all too much to contemplate.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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