Thursday, 24 January 2013

On drug users as 'patients' and not 'criminals'

How should we identify drug users?
Should we look at drug abuse as a criminal activity or a health problem?
There was an article in today's Telegraph about the negative aspects of identifying drug addicts as criminals. Prof. Dame Sally Davies claims that it would be much more effective to see addicts as 'patients' and, therefore, addictions as 'health problems'.
A report from the British Medical Association agrees, saying that drug users are often discouraged from seeking help because of the criminalisation of drugs(although exactly what kind of help would be offered isn't very clearly explained).
Martin Barnes, from the DrugScope charity, says that "drug misuse should be treated largely as a health and public health issue".
Personally I believe there is a problem in labelling drug addicts as patients rather than 'criminals'. The point of making drugs illegal is to discourage people from using them; taking a softer approach to drug users is therefore probably not a good idea, as people will be more inclined to do drugs because the consequences are less severe.

If we really wanted to 'decriminalise drugs', instead of identifying drug users as patients we should do something about the distribution of drugs in the first place. Personally I don't think we should both continue to ban drugs(but still widely available, with no limits placed on what is added/the amount of drug you are sold) and label drug users as 'victims'.

It goes back to the philosophical debate about the effectiveness of punishment; if there was a death penalty for drunk driving and therefore noone ever drove drunk, would it be fair? Should we continue the largely ineffective 'war on drugs' or try a much more radical approach, sweeping away old policies following the lesson of the Prohibition?

We shouldn't simply treat drug users as 'victims', because it creates the impression of helplessness. It encourages inertia on the part of the user, who convinces themselves that they cannot shift the habit without professional aid, and shifts the blame from the user to their situation. Whatever happens, the user is not at fault.In some cases, this is true. It is very easy to get addicted to drugs, and because they are ridiculously expensive(again due to their illegal status and therefore the lack of supply) it leads to a downward spiral. But it is also very popular amongst celebrities to use drugs, and then claim it was a 'mistake' and go to rehab to 'fix' themselves. This illusion created around the safety of drugs, and this dependency on intervention rather than self-help shouldn't be encouraged. Seeing drug abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal offence may help drug users come forward for help, but it also makes drug-taking seem less serious. Also, it all depends on what 'help' they can get from the  NHS or charities like DrugScope.
At best, this recommendation could encourage thousands more to kick the habit and get their lives back on track without putting themselves in danger by using drugs. It could encourage them to seek help where before they were too afraid of the implications of admitting to drug use.
In the long term, this could be a step in legalising drugs and putting regulations on distribution, manufacture etc.
At worst the concept could make illegal recreational drug taking forgivable and make it easier for people to get addicted to drugs like heroin because of the leniency of punishment. This would potentially create more drug addicts, who would feel safe in the knowledge that there would be very little punishment if they were caught.

Either way the drug debate is interesting, as is the question of how best to stop people putting themselves and others in danger through drug-taking, either indirectly or directly.

There's some similarities between this and the alcohol debate; New Scientist recently released an article about the potential effect of raising the price of alcohol. I may do a blog post on this later, but we'll see.

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