Ronnie Cowan MP: Simple changes in drugs policy could save thousands of lives

Posted On: 
2nd March 2016

Scottish National Party MP Ronnie Cowan writes that the war on drugs isn't working and calls for small policy changes which would save lives and potentially reduce policing and prison costs to the taxpayer.

On the 29th of February I was invited to attend a presentation from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK (Leap UK) entitled Law Enforcement Stand with Communities for Drug Policy Reform. It was an extremely interesting talk with some incredibly well informed speakers, including retired senior police officers and ex British Army officers, who brought years of experience to the table.

The discussion drew parallels between the regulated tobacco and alcohol market and the unregulated drugs market. Everyone on the panel was firm in their belief that the war on drugs isn't working and while the war on drugs policy continues, a violent war for drugs will continue on our streets.

You may be familiar with the stories of the violence associated with the prohibition of alcohol in America from 1920 to 1933. The gangsters ruled by the gun and fortunes were made. But do you know how quickly this stopped as soon as the prohibition came to an end? Almost immediately, is the answer. There is no need for the CEO of Guinness to wage a violent war against Tennents because they are trading in a regulated market. The question is could we do the same for drugs?

Under the current status quo of criminalisation the problem of unregulated drugs is self perpetuating. We have unknown criminals selling unknown substances to unknown addicts. When the state does intervene it is to punish and frequently that punishment is focused on the addicts who are in dire need of help. I heard from Suzanne Sharkey a former Constable and Undercover Operative for Northumbria Constabulary. Suzanne is also in long term recovery from substance misuse herself. It goes without saying she speaks with great authority on the subject. Suzanne said that what an addict needs most is help and compassion. Waking up in a prison cell after overdosing does nothing to rehabilitate addicts, instead it continues the cycle of sadness and shame that fuels an addiction.

Arresting people from poor and socially deprived areas whose crimes are nonviolent does nothing to help our communities. Giving addicts a criminal record and therefore limiting their access to the jobs market is putting up barriers to rehabilitation and integration into the community.

If you want evidence there are many examples of countries implementing relatively simple policy changes that have a huge effect on drug consumption and in turn save thousands of lives. Switzerland has legalised heroin for addicts, fifteen years ago Portugal set about creating job opportunities for addicts as part of a reform of their drug laws. Intravenous drug use has decreased by 50%, the rate of overdose and HIV transmission has also decreased significantly. Decriminalising drugs has proven to be a successful model of harm reduction within communities.

I heard from Jim Duffy who was the former head of Strathclyde police. He was under no illusion that prohibition is an out and out failure. When he started in the police in 1975 his colleagues were talking about dealing with £10 bags and now over 40 years later the conversation is still about £10 bags. The numbers are startling - Scotland has over 350,000 casual cannabis users (if they were to vote it would return 9 - 10 seats in a parliament election). There are 55 thousand heroin addicts, who if they were imprisoned would cost the taxpayer £1,000 per week to rehabilitate from inside prison.

Jim also spoke about the disparity between evidence and policy.  He stressed the need to educate ourselves, our media and policy makers on the facts, so that any decisions made in the future are designed to restore the public’s respect for law enforcement, which to this point has been greatly diminished by its involvement in imposing drug prohibition. Jim repeated the comparison to alcohol and tobacco and pointed out that Scotland has a booming whisky industry which the UK reaps the rewards of, through taxation, yet it is estimated that around seven thousand people a year die from alcohol related diseases. The tobacco industry is well regulated and again pulls in huge revenues through taxation yet estimates link thirteen thousand deaths a year to smoking. Jim pointed out that during his time in service he could not account for one death as a result of cannabis use.

The scary part of all this is, who is in charge. It is drug dealers that decide what drugs to sell on the street, they decide what it is cut with and therefore the strength and effect it has on the user. I don't know what the answers are but it is evident that we have a massive problem on our hands. When it comes to drug reform policy and ideas it would appear that most of the general public are leagues ahead of politicians on this issue.

Ronnie Cowan is the SNP MP for Inverclyde