On Tuesday 18 July, a senior Conservative minister made an astonishing statement, live in a parliamentary debate. And her words show the utter shambles at the heart of a major government policy.
MP Sarah Newton is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability. And on Tuesday, she was leading a debate on UK drugs policy. The government has released its updated drugs strategy, which has received a mixed reaction from MPs, professionals and others.
But when Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb posed a question about the Tories’ stance on drugs, Newton revealed her naivety on the subject.
Lamb opened by stating that “the most dangerous drug in terms of harm is alcohol”. He then asked what “different approach” government policy took to alcohol, compared with other drugs such as cannabis. Newton responded by saying:
I wouldn’t agree with the Honourable Gentleman that… erm… y’know… alcohol is the most dangerous drug. If you look at… if you look at the substances which we are restricting… erm… Of course, there are those people who take alcohol to such a harmful degree that it is devastating for them, and it is devastating to their family members…
Newton’s statement is problematic for a number of reasons.
The figures for drug-related deaths are sometimes hard to quantify. But the most recent data available shows that death rates due to drugs were the following in England and Wales:
- Tobacco [pdf] – 79,000 in 2015, or around 16% of all registered deaths – up from 2014.
- Alcohol – 8,758 in 2015, or 14.2 deaths per 100,000 people. (Note: these are direct deaths from alcohol-related diseases, not indirect).
- Illegal drugs – 2,479 in 2015, or 4.38 deaths per 100,000 people.
In short, both tobacco and alcohol are far more of a public health concern than illegal drugs. Not that the government wishes to acknowledge this.
A shameful record
But Newton also said [13.19.15] in the debate that “there are positive signs that the government’s approach [to drugs] is working”. And she insisted [13.19.25] that “there has been a reduction in drugs misuse in adults and young people, compared to a decade ago”.
Aside from overall drug-related deaths rising by 67%, and heroin-related deaths by 107% between 2012-2015, further statistics seem to contradict this; as almost a third of all drug overdoses in Europe happened in the UK. Also, Britain has the highest proportion of heroin addicts in the EU – 8 in every 1,000 people. And the UK drug mortality rate is three times the EU average, at 60.3 deaths per million people.
Out-of-touch, and running out of time
Writing in The Guardian, Henry Fisher (Policy Director of drug reform thinktank Volteface) said that the government had had a “veritable plethora of missed opportunities for adopting evidence-based harm reduction policies”. And he noted that:
Against a backdrop of increasing policy innovation in the wider world, the main aims of this strategy are largely unchanged from the previous 2010 version. There’s still a focus on recovery, rather than harm reduction. A continued commitment to tackling the problems caused by drugs through the criminal justice system, rather than through the health system. A point blank refusal to consider decriminalisation, or any reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act.
When you have a policy and a system that clearly doesn’t understand the subject it is legislating on, then problems will arise. But the challenge facing anyone affected by drug laws is that those making them are coming from an archaic and totally alien viewpoint. What drug reform needs is more input from users, addicts and medical professionals. Not politicians with little grasp of what goes on outside the world of Westminster. As Newton demonstrated in parliament, the government has completely lost touch with what is needed from its drug strategy.
– If you, or someone you know, are living with alcoholism you can call Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm).
– If it is a medical emergency call 999.
Featured image via YouTube