Drug Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 20th April 2022.

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Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 3:30 pm, 20th April 2022

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate Robbie Moore on bringing forward this debate.

I understand the frustration I have heard today. My constituency of Inverclyde is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, and we have a lot of drug use, abuse and criminality. I see it; I hear it; I understand it. People come to my constituency office and tell me the same stories. However, I come at this issue from a different angle.

We all despise drug gangs for what they do in our community. We despise the fact that they drag young children into their criminal world, where they are used and abused in that part of society. We all get that.

However, if we have 100 criminals each committing a crime a day in our constituency and we arrest those 100 criminals, the problem will not simply go away. Do not take my word for it. Neil Woods, who wrote the book “Good Cop, Bad War”, was at the forefront of the battle on drugs. He was an undercover cop who worked closely with drug gangs, putting his life at risk; he was responsible for the incarceration of one of the biggest drug gangs in the United Kingdom. All the gang members were locked up, from top to bottom; all their drugs and weapons were taken—there was a huge amount of publicity. Neil says that, within hours, the drugs were back on the streets and the criminals were back out there. Taking away one gang creates a vacuum that other gangs will fight over, and the criminality escalates. That is how they take control.

The current system is not working for us. We have been doing it for 50 years, and it simply does not work. I do not see any real change in attitude from the Government to say, “Let us try something different.” As Robin Millar said, we cannot arrest our way out of a drug crisis. Ask virtually any police officer in the United Kingdom and they will say the same thing. They are living with this day in, day out. We need to address the problem, not the symptoms of the problem. It is a very complicated problem and overly simplistic solutions will not cut it. Why do people self-harm with drugs? What can we do to help them? How do we take power away from the criminal gangs that drag people into their world?

The UK Government’s new 10-year drug strategy brings much-needed money to rebuild drug treatment, but lacks real reform. Despite repeated calls from experts to adopt a new approach, the plan does not mention drug consumption rooms, overdose prevention centres—I will call them OPCs—or heroin-assisted treatment. The only reference to the decriminalisation of drug possession is an unfounded statement that it would lead to increased drug use.

OPCs are hygienic, safe spaces where people can use their own drugs under the supervision of trained staff, where overdoses can be reversed with naloxone. They are vital for engaging with people who are not in contact with local treatment services. A large percentage of those who die from drug-related deaths have not been in contact with treatment services for five years. That is in addition to shockingly high rates of drug-related deaths among the homeless population, which have more than doubled since 2013.

It is estimated that that are nearly 200 OPCs in operation across the world in 14 countries. However, there are none in the UK, as this Government continue to believe that OPCs condone the use of drugs. They prefer to continue to ostracise and marginalise drug users, and then wonder why the crime rate is increasing.

There is a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of OPCs to engage with people who inject or smoke drugs. OPCs not only reduce the risk of overdose and bloodborne viruses among young people who use drugs, but reduce public injecting and drug-related litter. They can also provide pathways to treatment and healthcare facilities.

The Government’s strategy also fails to address the harms of current drug policy and drug law enforcement, including that police stop and search is racially disparate. Drug laws are imposed most harshly against ethnic minority communities, despite prevalence rates among those groups being no higher than among the white population.

We need to do two things. First and foremost, we must treat addiction as an illness, bearing in mind that, just as with alcohol, which is a dangerous drug, about 90% of those who use illegal drugs do not have a problem and certainly do not turn to crime. We must provide the right sort of healthcare, based on the needs of the person suffering from addiction. When we recognise drug use as a health issue, it is clear that increasing access to treatment, harm reduction and social services will lead to better outcomes than criminal justice sanctions.

Gaining or adding to a criminal record—even for those who receive non-custodial sentences, including formal cautions—can cause serious damage to life chances. Bretteville-Jensen and colleagues outline that criminal records, especially when they contain drug-related offences, present obstacles to obtaining employment, seeking rented accommodation, education attainment, international travel and maintaining interpersonal relationships. If we do not provide the right kind of support, addicts will get stuck in a downward spiral of addiction, crime and prison. Most people would probably agree with that.

When it comes to how we deal with criminality, the debate takes a whole new dimension. The criminality comes from two sources: people turning to crime to fund their addictions, and the criminal fraternity who leech off those with addictions and supply the marketplace. First, we need to identify what criminal behaviour is. Increasingly, personal possession is not something that people are prosecuted for, and I welcome that. The decriminalisation of all drug possession is backed by all 31 United Nations agencies and acknowledged by the World Health Organisation as a critical enabler of service access. Committees in this place have advocated a move away from criminalisation, including the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, has explored decriminalisation over 30 jurisdictions and has found that drug decriminalisation done well can improve health outcomes, reduce drug-related deaths and reduce offending and reoffending, thereby reducing the burden of social costs on police resources and public spending, which is essentially the target of the new 10-year drugs strategy. That is in addition to evidence that, in countries that have reformed their laws policy, liberalisation is not associated with large increases in drug consumption.

Drug laws and their enforcement are used as mechanisms to punish drug use, and the threat of punishment is considered a tool of deterrence. The Black review estimates that the spend on UK drug law enforcement exceeds £1.4 billion per annum, yet the Home Office’s own 2014 analysis of drug policies in 14 countries found:

“There is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”

In 2017, another Home Office evaluation acknowledged the resilience of the illicit drug market and the limited impact of drug law enforcement, including significant drug seizures and the availability of drugs. It also identified “unintended consequences” associated with drug interdiction, including increased violence in the marketplace resulting from enforcement activities, criminalisation negatively impacting on employment prospects, and parental imprisonment, which can have dire consequences for children, increasing the risks of child offending, experience of mental health problems, and problematic drug use.

County lines, a lynchpin of the new 10-year drugs strategy, has been framed as an altogether new phenomenon that facilitates the supply of mostly heroin and crack cocaine into non-metropolitan areas, even though heroin and crack markets already existed in those areas. Those who have studied county lines have shown that the entry of drugs into rural areas—sometimes via the involvement of young people—is not a new feature of an unregulated drug market. Some young people choose to engage in the market because of a lack of life choices and opportunities, so focusing on social and economic policies rather than drug law enforcement would reduce their involvement.

We got it wrong 50 years ago in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and we have been getting it wrong ever since. If we want to reduce crime, we must decriminalise drugs to take the power away from criminal gangs, make consumption safer and treat addiction as a health issue.