Monday, 1 November 2010

The Big Society approach to drugs

I was interested to see that the relative costs to society of legal and illegal drugs has made the news again today. Last week I finally got round to watching the last episode of Our Drugs War, an great documentary series made by Angus Macqueen shown over the summer. In the three episodes Angus follows the consequences of the criminalisation of drugs from the estates of Edinburgh and New York to the poppy fields in Afghanistan to demonstrate that it is the battle against drugs, our societal insistence to treat a medical problem as a criminal one and therefore fuel a huge black economy, which causes far more harm than the drugs themselves.

In the UK alone our domestic policy to drugs is a manifest failure. Penalties get harsher, more and more substances are criminalised, and yet drug consumption continues to rise. Talk to the leaders of charities working with addicts and its clear that it is the consequences of the criminality associated with drugs; with the poverty, the exploitation, the spirals of deprivation, which is the fundamental problem.

I am not coming at this really from an ideological point of view. I completely understand the motive to want to protect people from harmful things by making them illegal. Governments of old made perfectly reasonable assumptions when banning drugs that this would stop people using them. My problem with the status quo is simply that it doesn’t work. In this debate facts simply are not the driver of policy, fear and misunderstanding take the lead.

This government has been clear that it has a response to areas of policy where government interventions don’t work. It’s called Big Society. As I’ve blogged before I think that Big Society is best conceived of as a political philosophy rather than a coherent programme of work in its own right; an approach based on devolving power and building personal and community responsibility. Speech after speech from senior members of the government has declared that government can’t have all the answers for the tricky problems which society faces. Sometimes society itself just has to be left to found the answer. Where government gets in the way it should withdraw and let the people take charge.

The Big Society narrative has of course been used in the context of championing those who work in communities affected by drugs including those who work with addicts. The sector’s record here is outstanding and of course more should be invested in treating addicts as people with a medical problem rather than a criminal one.

However is there not a more fundamental application of Big Society principles to the drugs problem (and I’m really posing the question here rather than being sure of the answer!)? If government is the problem in the sense that it is the criminalisation of drugs which is more harmful than drugs themselves, then shouldn’t the harmful influence of government simply step back. Shouldn’t we decriminalise all drugs and then focus on a social and medical set of interventions to build the communities which have been ravaged by drug related crime? Take away the criminality and you take away the illegal drug trade with all its associated harm. You change incentives and you change opportunities in those communities no longer driving people towards the drug trade as the only available enterprise. You empower people to seek help without the fear of being locked up. In short you change the whole structure of communities affected by drugs to seek solutions rather than be stuck in spirals of harm.

David Cameron is keen to be pictured as the radical. Big Society is his vision for changing the country. The question therefore is just how radical is he prepared to be to empower society to solve the problems that government can’t.

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