Yesterday I attended the long awaited Scrutiny Inquiry Day into the impact of Drug Policy in Bristol. Our aim was to start the process that will look at the true cost of drugs to the city.
Health workers, campaigners senior police officers and ex-adicts were represented, along with councillors from all parties and council officers from health to housing. The day was informative and balanced – and strangely for a council meeting – overtly non-political and constructive.
Many interesting topics were covered. What is the real cost of our drug policy in terms of harm to users and addicts? As a nation we tend to focus on crime statistics and prejudices when discussing the issue. How else should we be examining this problem?
We looked at what amazing work is being done in the city and what we can do to improve this. Portugal’s recent decriminalisation was studied in depth, as were commonly held but incorrect beliefs such as cannabis use causing mental health problems.
The meeting began with a surprising consensus that simply criminalising the act of drug use on its own was not only wrong but also not cost effective. The cost to the nation has been estimated at about £36bn with a further £26bn attributed to crime itself. Everyone – including senior police officers – agreed that all that was lacking was the political will to change policy.
Portugal decided to decriminalise minimal drug use. Complementary to this policy, they invested in health and treatment programs, needle drops and education. The proportion of the prison population incarcerated for drug use has fallen from 44% to 20% and injecting – the most harmful form of substance abuse – has fallen by 40%. As a result, the spread of HIV and AIDS has declined dramatically. This is all in the space of a few years.
Danny Kushlick, from pressure group Transform, highlighted the hypocrisies in the UK’s drug policy. “Why can’t long term tobacco users go to residential rehab, and why does that get a laugh?” he asked the audience before illustrating that residential rehab allowed smoking and therefore wasn’t treating addiction seriously enough.
Alcohol and tobacco kill far more than all other drugs combined and yet we continue in our “conspiracy of silence because…heroin is them and alcohol is us”.
The progress made so far in this city was applauded. An ex user gave her honest thanks to the city that helped her get clean. She told the room: “Bristol police are very compassionate.”
The police representative John Riley stated that on raids, addiction specialists were on hand as treatment and rehabilitation are preferred where possible.
Expanding on the topic of public awareness, Maggie Telfer (Bristol Drugs Project) added: “People’s perceptions are their reality, so we need to work even harder and get our communication out there.”
My personal opinion is that we should be progressing towards full legalisation of the drug trade. I have always thought that to allow the industry to be run by violent criminals and gangsters – some with private armies in the thousands – is pure lunacy. The trade is worth $300bn a year worldwide. Imagine how much tax revenue this could raise? We would be able to use these funds to improve failing health services. If regulated, both the strength and ingredients could be made perfectly clear, thus drastically cutting the amount of accidental overdoses.
This is however a long way off. Transform is setting its target for 2020 but I fear this is optimistic. What is hopeful is that at last politicians in this city are talking sensibly about substance use. This is only the first step of many towards a city drug policy that might finally start treating drug use as a social and medical issue, rather than a criminal one.
The report from the Inquiry Day will be published later in the year and will direct how Overview and Scrutiny Management direct council and city policy.
Gus Hoyt is Green Party councillor for Ashley ward