The New British National Drug Strategy -- A Little Tougher, Maybe a Little Smarter, But Essentially More of the Same

The British Home Office last week released its new 10-year national drug strategy, and all the signals are that Britain will essentially maintain the same policies it has had for the last 10 years. Like its American counterpart (see story in this issue here), the British strategy emphasizes law enforcement, with secondary roles for drug treatment and education.

According to the Home Office, there are some 332,000 "problem drug users" in the country fueling an illegal drug market estimated to be worth between $8 billion and $13 billion. Those people account for between one-half and one-third of theft and burglary in the country, and Class A drug use costs the country about $30 billion a year in crime and health costs, the Home Office said.

The new 10-year strategy will provide law enforcement with enhanced tools to go after drug dealers and users:

  • Police will be able to seize assets belonging to suspected dealers on arrest, rather than waiting for a conviction, as they currently must do. Police will also be able to seize a wider range of goods, and the current 12-year statute of limitations on asset forfeitures will be abandoned.
  • Courts will be able to impose "antisocial behavior" orders on convicted drug dealers, which could ban them from entering certain areas or engaging in certain behaviors associated with drug dealing.
  • There will be heightened drug screen at airports.
  • Police will be more aggressive in closing "crack houses."
  • The government will create an informing campaign called "Rat on a Rat."

The British government will also go after drug users, by threatening to cut their benefits if they refuse to participate in drug treatment programs. "We do not think it is right for the taxpayer to help sustain drug habits when individuals could be getting treatment to overcome barriers to employment," the strategy said.

On the other hand, the new strategy will also increase support to drug users to help them find housing and work and will create pilot projects to "explore the potential of a more flexible use of funding to address individual needs." It will also roll out heroin and methadone maintenance programs for users who do not respond to other treatment options, as well as search for innovative, effective treatment regimes.

While the Home Office was patting itself on the back for a job well done, critics were quick to accuse it of promoting the same old failed policies, engaging in a crooked consultation process, and manipulating data to paint a brighter picture of its successes and obscure its failures.

"The new drug strategy arrives after ten years of disastrous policy failure, yet during last year's sham consultation and review process the Home Office utterly failed to acknowledge failure or meaningfully engage in a debate on policy alternatives. Instead, success has been claimed with a shameful parade of cherry picked statistics and Home Office spin," said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "In stark contrast, documents the government attempted to suppress clearly demonstrate that they have known about the counterproductive nature of supply side drug enforcement for many years, yet continued to pour money into it -- something in the region of $6 billion a year -- despite the knowledge it was contributing to a further $32 billion year in crime costs."

With its new drug strategy, the government "is playing politics with people's lives," Rolles continued. "We now have a drug strategy shaped by political needs rather than any evidence of what actually works," he said. "Tragically, the new strategy is nothing more than a miserable regurgitation of past mistakes with a bit of cosmetic spin and window dressing. Its prospects of having a meaningful impact on drug related harms to individuals and communities are zero."

"Drug policies serve the gratification of politicians," said Labor MP Paul Flynn, a longtime advocate of drug law reform in a commentary in The Guardian. "The canard is that 'tough' policies are popular and reap a full harvest of votes. Snatching benefits from addicts is 'tough.' What is needed is 'intelligent policies.' They require courage -- a commodity in short supply in parliament."

The British "drugs charity" Drugscope was a little kinder in its response to the strategy. "The investment by government in the past 10 years should be acknowledged but there is still a lot to do in reducing the harms drugs cause," said Drugscope head Martin Barnes.
"The emphasis on supporting families and improving outcomes for people in drug treatment is welcome. However, while the strategy is strong on aspiration it is unclear how change and improvement will be delivered, particularly at a time of reduced funding for adult treatment and young people's drug services."

Barnes also applauded the government's commitment to improve access to job training for problem users, but criticized the proposal to strip benefits from users. "It would be nonsensical to remove benefits particularly as one of the aims of the strategy is to break the link between drugs and crime. The stick of coercion and threats to remove benefits will be counterproductive without positive support, well-trained advisers and tackling the reluctance of employers to recruit former drug users," Barnes predicted.

Nor was Barnes especially enthusiastic about tougher law enforcement. "The announcement on asset seizures is not unexpected but local police need to work in partnership with drug treatment and prevention services if there is to be a real impact on reducing drug harms in communities," he said.

Minor changes and shifts in emphasis in drug strategies are not enough -- a radical policy change is necessary, said Transform's Rolles. "The first step, if there is any hope of drug related harm being reduced in the long term, is for the government to start telling the truth. This means acknowledging the failure of a predominantly enforcement led approach and beginning to shift the emphasis of policy towards proven public health led initiatives. This will involve investing money in education, prevention, treatment, and addressing the social deprivation that underlies most problematic drug use -- instead of yet more heavy handed police and military enforcement that only serves to make drug problems worse, fill our prisons, and maximize drug harms."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Holy Crap

That was the headline when the Pope issued his "new"seven deadlies.This British fiasco is the most draconian piece of garbage I've seen in a long time.The way this reads,it will be a crime to be an addict in the British Isles.They've certainly gotten over any shyness over forcing China to buy opium for 100 years.Being able to seize property before a conviction flies in the face of the basis for British Law.They are saying that if you use drugs,you forfeit any rights you may have once had.This is the same country that had it's heroin problem fixed(no pun intended)at a certain level for several years by allowing addicts to be maintained on heroin by prescription.Unfortunately,the parameters for the program included the necessity that addicts be seen to be quitting use in some kind of meaningful numbers.This did not happen.Crime went down,the spread of addiction was slowed,people worked and supported themselves and there was even an addition of cocaine to the mix.I'm sure there were problems but the switch from heroin to methadone was not well received and the country's addiction problem spiralled out of control as soon as the program was ended.Britain is currently ruled by a law and order government that is ignoring the advice of most of the experts and attempting to arrest and punish it's way out of it's drug problems.It is just a matter of time until we see how this effects their bottom line.I doubt they will have any more success with a hard line approach than has any other country on the planet.This will cost them a lot of time,money and pain.Let's hope we can look back on this as just another anomaly in the struggle for decent drug law and freedom and human rights.

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