Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Tim Rathbone


  1.  The increased emphasis on treatment and primary demand reduction in the Government's National Strategy is very welcome. This represents a direct effort to reduce the number of those tragically involved in misuse of drugs—legal and illegal. But it is in the area of primary demand reduction that much more still needs to be done.

  2.  Education for better health and reduced demand is the most powerful instrument we have to meet the challenge of drugs misuse. To be effective each school, home and community has a role to play. Education about drugs needs to start at kindergarten age; drugs education should specifically cater for different age groups and take account of children's different backgrounds and emotional needs as they grow up; parents should be as much involved in drugs education as teachers at school. Government needs to do more to enable this to happen.

  3.  This will require more resources for drugs education at various levels and stages: in schools, for materials to use with pupils and for teachers to undergo initial and in-service training; for parents' drugs programmes; for education of professionals working in the community; and education in the community as a whole so that everyone is informed and potentially able to help prevent a drugs problem. And, in areas with particular social and economic problems producing high-risk groups of disaffected young people who are likely to be attracted to drug taking, health education activities have to be specifically targeted in the broader context of necessary improvements to the local environment.

  4.  To achieve better drugs education effectively, best practice, here in the UK and in other countries, has to be identified through continual measurement and the findings widely disseminated. For instance, the relative merits of lessening the temptation of drugs by encouraging healthier life styles must be compared to specific teaching about the nature and dangers of drugs—and assessment made as to best mix of the two and the best way of going about both.

  5.  Even at the basic level of providing factual information about drugs, certain contradictions in society's approach become apparent. How does one explain to an adolescent why heroin is illegal, on the one hand, but free clean needles are provided to injecting drug abusers, on the other? Why are certain drugs like tobacco and alcohol legal, but cause thousands of deaths per year, while cannabis is illegal?

  6.  But there is now established an inexorable link between the consumption of legal and illegal drugs among young people. Under-age drinking and smoking, in themselves illegal activities, are gateways to taking illegal drugs. Those young people who do not smoke or drink before they are 18 years old are unlikely to have drugs problems. And the inhaling of legal solvents and other volatile substances, which can, of themselves, have severe and even fatal consequences, can also lead on to drug abuse. Clearly there needs to be better control of all kinds of legal substances which can cause considerable harm to under-age illegal purchasers and young misusers.

  7.  In our country all drugs listed in the United Nations Conventions are illegal to supply or possess unlawfully. There are no tenable arguments for making any of these drugs legal, as is sometimes suggested on the basis that alcohol and tobacco are legal. We know that cancer caused by smoking tobacco is one of the greatest killers in society today; and alcohol abuse can and often does damage health, cause great misery and ruin lives. But far more important is the fact that many illegal drugs cause addiction in a comparatively short space of time, often leading to dangerous and unsocial behaviour and damage to both mental and physical health. And frequent consumption of cannabis/marijuana/hashish can also cause damage, particularly to the reproductive organs and to the efficient functioning of the brain, and can adversely affect proper motivation—specially important with young people in school and college.

  8.  The argument in favour of legalising drugs, which claims that by decriminalising them the profit motive and trafficking would disappear, fails because of the damage which would be done to the health of increasing numbers of young people. If such substances were made freely available, then consumption would inevitably rise. If controls were applied, then a black market would continue to exist. Either way, the argument for total or controlled availability is not tenable.

  9.  Nevertheless, the Government should continue to view the problem of drugs in a realistic way. The policy of caution and referral for treatment is better than prosecution of those caught with small quantities of cannabis for personal use, as is the increasing use of drugs courts to the same end. Harm reduction activities, such as supply of clean needles, can reduce personal harm and prescribing controlled drugs such as methadone can help established addicts to live more normally, take away the criminal conduct involved in obtaining money to buy illegal supplies and provide a useful bridge back to a drugs-free life.

  10.  The strongest weapon against drug abuse and misuse is not the policeman or customs agent who tracks down illegal drug traffickers and pushers (important those though efforts continue to be) but the self-assured and responsible young person who remains firm when being offered cigarettes, marijuana or cocaine. In today's world, health education about drugs should be considered to be as necessary as learning the alphabet. Only by improving that education will we ever really start reducing demand. And only by reducing demand will we ever overcome the national and worldwide problem of drug trafficking and misuse.

September 2001

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