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30.10.14

Home Office report finds no link between punitive drug laws and levels of use

A controversial new Home Office report has found that there is “no obvious link” between tough drug laws and the number of people who use them.

Examining drug laws from 11 different countries, the groundbreaking document contradicts 40 years of almost unbroken official political rhetoric that only harsher penalties can tackle the problem caused by the likes of heroin, cocaine or cannabis.

The report, signed off by the home secretary and the Liberal Democrat crime prevention minister, Norman Baker bases its key findings on a comparison of Portugal, where personal use is decriminalised, and the Czech Republic, where criminal penalties for possession were introduced in 2010.

It says: “We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country. The Czech Republic and Portugal have similar approaches to possession, where possession of small amounts of any drug does not lead to criminal proceedings, but while levels of drug use in Portugal appear to be relatively low, reported levels of cannabis use in the Czech Republic are among the highest in Europe.

“Indicators of levels of drug use in Sweden, which has one of the toughest approaches we saw, point to relatively low levels of use, but not markedly lower than countries with different approaches.”

It goes on to suggest treating possession of drugs as a health rather than criminal matter reduces drug deaths and HIV infection rates without increasing addiction levels.

The report has no conclusion but in its final paragraph the Home Office authors remark that the lack of any clear correlation between “toughness” of approach and levels of drug use demonstrates the complexity of the issue: “Achieving better health outcomes for drug users cannot be shown to be a direct result of the enforcement approach.”

Norman Baker said the report should end "mindless rhetoric" on drugs policy.

The report has forced the Home Office to publish a statement which denied decriminalisation was on the table.

A spokesperson said: "This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs. Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK.

"It is right that we look at drugs policies in other countries and today’s report summarises a number of these international approaches."

The report had been kept under wraps for three months amid a Coalition row, with Norman Baker saying that it was ready to be published in July – but the Tories suppressed it.

The Lib Dem Home Office minister said to the Guardian: “The reality is that this report has been sitting around for several months. I’ve been trying to get it out and I’m afraid that I believe that my coalition colleagues who commissioned the report jointly don’t like the independent conclusions it’s reached.

“It was suppressed, not by Theresa May, it was suppressed by the Conservatives and the reality is that it has got some inconvenient truths in it.”

The deputy PM backed up his party colleague, saying there had been a lot of “foot-dragging”.

Nick Clegg, speaking on LBC, said: “I think the Tories have a misplaced, backward-looking, outdated view that the public would not accept a smarter approach on how to deal with drugs. The argument I have made to them privately and publicly is pluck up the courage to face up to the evidence that what we are doing is not as effective as it should be, there are lessons we can learn from other countries and if you are anti-drugs you should be pro-reform. Have the courage for once just to break some of the taboos.”

He said: “We have got to get away from this facile view that talking tough solves this problem. It is a betrayal of those 2,000 families of those that die every year in our country.”

In response a spokesperson for David Cameron said: “This report provides no support whatsoever for the Lib Dems’ policy of decriminalisation. In fact, it clearly states that it would be inappropriate to draw those kind of conclusions.

“The Lib Dem policy would see drug dealers getting off scot-free and send an incredibly dangerous message to young people about the risks of taking drugs. As the report makes very clear, the government’s approach already provides a good balance between enforcement and treatment, drug use is plummeting as a result and there is simply no chance that we will entertain such a reckless change of course.”

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