It doesn’t take much for the ‘drug’s legalisation lobby’ to leap upon anything they might be able to twist a bit to satisfy objectives that seem to be highly resilient to contrary argument. A classic example was the BBC programme ‘This Week’ (30th October) in which the obdurate Ian Birrell managed to disregard anything which didn’t fit with his personal objectives, much to the frustration of Alan Johnson who, at times is capable of exactly the same behaviour but, on this occasion, found the inability of Birrell to acknowledge anything that failed to wholeheartedly support his rather naïve and inaccurate views, highly irritating.

The home office report https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/drugs-international-comparators has been conveniently misinterpreted to suggest that some other strategy, obviously much more lax, is needed to reduce drug taking and by logical consequence harm caused from such behaviour.

The inconvenient factor that might make one look more closely at this report, which, by the way, doesn’t form any firm conclusions either way, might be the steady reduction of drug taking over the last 10 years or so. The mantra declaring the war (on drugs) is lost or is being lost conveniently avoids taking cognisance of the more reliable measurements that quantify the problem. The strategy seems to be, keep saying it isn’t working and some will believe that.

Mr Birrell, in slippery form, shifted the argument to criminality, quite a separate matter, to avoid acknowledging the reduction in drug use then plucked from the air the hundreds of thousands of users imprisoned whilst failing to distinguish between those, who happen to be drug users, imprisoned for some other act of criminality and those imprisoned for personal use of Class B substances of which there are probably very few indeed. In reality the approach to the latter is already lax so much of the ‘probable’ conclusion of the report is undermined because prison is no longer the usual punishment for personal use.

The report itself recognises that it is hard to disentangle other social and regulatory factors that may also affect the bottom line numbers. I would go one further and say it is impossible because there are so many factors that aren’t even considered and to further complicate things methods of measurement may vary between places and times. With such a complex social network in play these reports often simply reflect the wishes of the commissioners and compilers. To complicate things this was a ‘desk’ study, a shorthand description for the most cursory and detached forms of social analysis, in other words a cheap job.

It does seem probable though and is supported by logic and reasoning that for low level drug use help and support (whether or not in combination with a prison sentence) is more likely to change drug related behaviour than a prison sentence alone. If anything that’s logically obvious.

An earlier example of another such study was the short term but oft quoted Scottish analysis of the effect of price rises on overall alcohol consumption. One simply measures one against the other, operate some selective measurement, ignore all the other ongoing social factors and, hey presto, you have a study that proves whatever it was you wanted to prove in the first place. The fact that overseas purchases were ignored, the study was small and over a short timescale, general economic conditions were worsening and the existence of a growing realisation that excess alcohol isn’t that good for one also existed will contaminate the result. There may be a multitude of other reasons why consumption seemed to decrease when prices went up. Typically price rises for anything see an initial decline in sales which is made up over time as people get used to it with the help of focussed advertising countering the initial dampening effect of the price rise. In reality and with such complex social behaviours one cannot study just the bits you can see or know about because all the other factors also play a part.

Treating drug abuse as a health issue seems to have some benefit and the use of DCRs (Drug Consumption Rooms) form a part of this approach but it may have drawbacks in encouraging experimentation by providing safety and comfort for irresponsible actions. Incorporating that into an analogy nobody, unless highly proficient, would attempt a high wire without a safety net, but when one is there the perceived risks are greatly reduced and more would be inclined to have a go.

Perhaps the most surprising as part of this report is what it doesn’t say rather than the non committal dissertation it seems to be. A critical part of a strategy to reduce drug use must be education of which a further part should be personal development of self worth and esteem. Drug addiction is a behavioural issue and not a substance one. The drugs are needed to overcome an inner negativity and in themselves aren’t the problem. If you were to consider gambling, for example, a powerful addiction with no substance involvement and then search for the common thread driving addictive behaviour, substances for their own sake will not fit the pattern.

The true answer to socially unacceptable levels of harmful drug use is for people not to want them in the first place. An analysis of what drives the behaviour to begin with might well be a more worthwhile enquiry.

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