I can't help noticing that my mention of drugs the other day as having utterly changed the criminal justice landscape over my working life, generated quite a lot of comment. My most popular post ever was about the war on drugs having been lost, so I thought it might be an idea to add a bit more to the discussion.
When I took up post in my small English town in 1985, heroin had yet to arrive. I found that most of my reports for court concerned offences that in some way were connected to alcohol misuse. Of course this legal, but potentially highly addictive mind and mood-altering substance, is so socially acceptable that its consumption is almost compulsory. This is despite there being loads of evidence to show that it's a dangerous substance, both in health terms and as a major ingredient in the commission of violent acts. If it was invented tomorrow, it would surely be illegal.
But of course despite being potentially dangerous, like many things in life, it's also very enjoyable and that's why I indulge regularly, along with many other people I know. What makes the difference is that despite being an addictive substance, alcohol can be enjoyed without it becoming an addiction. For the fortunate majority, they remain in control, not the other way round. Of course there is scope for any of us to possibly be deluding ourselves, but the key is whether or not a person finds that their life becomes adversely affected by a driving compulsion, the satisfaction of which takes priority over all else. I would normally assess someone as suffering from an addiction when their health is seriously affected and when they are unable to function normally in terms of shelter, nourishment, employment and relationships.
Trying to supervise clients suffering from alcohol addiction and slowly killing themselves can be a harrowing experience. The same goes for heroin of course or any number of other illegal substances. But addictive behaviour can come in many forms and gambling, driving or sexual activity can all be just as potentially harmful or disabling and bring people into contact with the Probation Service through associated criminal activity. I have remained of the opinion that such behaviour should be viewed as a medical phenomenon and indeed back in the 1980's it used to be. In those days I was able to refer clients relatively easily to a Regional Addiction Unit that was based at an NHS hospital. In my experience it's not so much a case of an addictive substance, but rather a propensity towards an addictive behavioural trait.
In suggesting that society takes a radically different approach towards illegal substances, I'm basically wanting to highlight the utter futility of the present approach. Virtually no aspect of the current regime works, in fact much of it compounds the problem and is hugely expensive along the way. Even though politicians dare not talk much about the issue, tentative prescribing regimes within the NHS are beginning to prove what many of us have suspected for some time, namely that legal access to heroin can enable a person to live a normal life, either on a maintenance dose, or withdraw more easily if they so desire.
We've all known for years that the middle-classes can manage to keep a good job and hide their drug use because they have the means to fund the habit without recourse to acquisitive crime. In the absence of a chaotic lifestyle and criminal activity, there's also evidence to support the thesis that many can maintain a recreational level of consumption, similar to that of responsible alcohol users.
So, just to be clear, certainly in relation to heroin and similar substances, I'm not advocating decriminalisation, but rather a return to the situation pre Misuse of Drugs Act when heroin could be prescribed and hence controlled by the medical profession. Alone it would not solve the drug problem entirely, but it would be an intelligent move in the right direction and help both those who have a problem addiction and those who might be termed to have a recreational need.