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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Brunstrom on drugs

Whatever one's views on the legalisation of drugs, it does seem that the only person publicly promoting this agenda at the moment is North Wales Chief Constable, Richard Brunstrom. He went onto Radio Four yesterday to restate his well-known views that the only way that we can possibly win the war against drugs is to decriminalise them.

Mr. Brunstrom believes that such a measure is 10 years away. Judging by the reaction of MPs such as Chris Bryant and papers such as the Daily Mail, that may be a conservative estimate. Those who disagree with Mr. Brunstrom do so from bitter experience. They have seen the damage that drugs can inflict on families and communities, they have seen young people die miserable deaths, watched sons, daughters and other local youngsters struggle to break an addiction, turn to crime to pay for their habit and suffer broken lives and their instincts are to fight against it by banning the substances that have caused this pain. I do not blame them for feeling that way.

Equally though, the bald statistics suggest that Brunstrom has a case that needs to be answered. The vast majority of acquisitive crime is drug related and the Police and the State are losing the war to turn this around. Even if we doubled the resources that are going into combating the drug trade we would still only be blocking less than half of the illegal substances that are pouring into this country.

It is also the case that not enough resources are going into treatment and prevention and in some areas there are unacceptable waiting times to get onto detox programmes. However, even those programmes will only deal with the tip of the iceberg.

And then there are the contradictions in policy. Alcohol is a legal substance and yet agencies dealing with substance abuse find that it dominates their work. People are addicted to legal prescription drugs and other substances that can be bought over the counter in a corner shop. In some cases they are dying as a result of this addiction. A large proportion of violent crime is directly attributable to alcohol.

This is not an argument to say that Richard Brunstrom is right or wrong, only that the issue is not black and white and we need to have a proper informed debate on the way forward that takes account of all these factors and more. Whatever approach that is taken must be justified as being in the public good. Just because a policy is not working well does not mean that it is the wrong policy, only that it needs to be reviewed root and branch so as to establish a viable and acceptable way forward.

As it happens I believe that the Chief Constable of North Wales did not help his own case yesterday. By arguing that ecstasy is safer than aspirin he stretched people's credulity. For all I know he may be right, but I and many thousands of others do not have the facts to hand to prove otherwise. What we do know is that drugs kill and that ecstacy has killed too, as of course has aspirin. If Mr. Brunstrom wants us to take a step into the unknown then he needs to be more convincing than this.

My view is that the debate on drugs policy is long overdue but we cannot have it in isolation. Those who want to reform policy need to convince people who see the problems of substance misuse on a daily basis that their way is better. Those who are opposed to reform need to stop demonising their opponents. Unless we can argue on the facts and put personalities to one side then we will never make any progress.
Has ecstasy killed? People often quote Leah Betts, but in reality she died because of ignorance and reliance on street "wisdom" about what to do when you take E and she drank so much water that it destroyed her body's salt balance. I am sure one must be able to find other instances where it has been implicated. However the variables in backroom laboratory created pills are just as likely to have actually caused death - many "Ecstasy" tablets are laced with things like heroin at best (which gives a different high but you never know until half an hour after you've popped it in reality what it's going to do) and poisons at worst, and you don't exactly get a blister pack insert with all the possible contraindicators on it as you do with legal drugs.

Similarly there's a case coming up at the GMC, today even maybe - sometime soon anyway - where a pathologist is fighting for his career having diagnosed the cause of a young man's death as cannabis consumption which the family simply did not believe and got second and third opinions, including from Home Office pathologists, saying that the initial pathologist's diagnosis was unprofessional and negligent. I wonder if the newspapers ever highlighted the retraction of the cause of death as much as they no doubt crowed that cannabis killed the guy?

But yes, the debate has to happen without the hysteria we've seen today over Brunstrom's statements.
My first reaction to Brunstrom's reported assessment was that it was like comparing apples with oranges.

We need to know more about the long-term effects of E before making sweeping judgments.

Having said that, I should point out that the chief constable is not alone in pointing out the illogicality, leading to criminality, of the existing laws. Both Labour's Paul Murphy (who seems to be keeping his head down at present - the BBC did not obtain a quote from him, I notice) and our own Chris Davies have consistently called for the decriminalisation of drugs.

Frank Little
I think Mr Brunstrom is spot on quite frankly, current drug policy isnt working.

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