07 July 2003

Ian Duncan Smith and Oliver Letwin on drugs

At the start of July, Letwin and IDS launched the Conservative's strategy on drugs, and there was substantial media coverage as a result. While the Tories are hopefully still unelectable, the strategies that they are outlining are the source of great concern. Not least because, if drugs become a political hot potato on the run-up to an election, it seems likely that the ever-flexible David Blunkett could find himself dragged off down an increasingly reactionary drug strategy dead-end.

The media reporting on the Tory strategy highlights the extent to which it has not been effectively thought out or priced. Unfortunately, rather more commentators commented on the latter aspects ("how will it be paid for?") than the former ("is it a viable way forward?")

Letwin and IDS have clearly been influenced by the Swedish model, and are seeking to copy this:
"... rehabilitation, as we have seen in Sweden and many other countries, where they have reduced addiction, cut the levels of crime. We are going to copy that."

Rather than just focussing on the issue of Class A drugs, the model used in Sweden is robus against all substances including cannabis. Possession or use of cannabis amongst young people is a trigger offence which means that young people are required to accept treatment.

Given that levels of cannabis use in the UK are variously estimated between 16% and 40%, this would mean creating capacity for some 3 million young cannabis users. At various points, Letwin and IDS have said that they want to model policy on both Swedish and Dutch models. These two models are mutually exclusive and demonstrate more about Letwin and IDS's fundamental lack of grasp as to how the systems work. The Netherlands adopt an approach that creates a clear seperation between cannabis and other drugs. No such seperation is made within the Swedish approach. Dutch treatment options are varied but do include high-dose methadone maintenance and experimental use of Diamorphine. Engagement and harm reduction through needle exchange and consumption rooms is also part of the provision, along with a high level of user and activist involvement.

The Swedish Government has vigorously opposed such developments and has been lobbied extensively by bodies such as HNN Sweden, who in turn were largely responsible for obstructing moves within the European Parliament and at the UN convention in Vienna to embrace such harm reduction principals.

Mr Letwin rejected the idea of prescribing hard drugs on the NHS to help drug users abandon their habit. "If you have maintained addicts you will have a permanent dependent population paid for by hard-working people. That is intolerable,"

This appears to suggest that Letwin rejects the international evidence that supports the prescribing of Class A drugs such as Diamorphine or Methadone either on a reduction or maintenance basis. It suggests that he is pursuing a forceful detoxification regime followed by a period of enforced rehabiliitation.

Finally, the proposals are substantially under-costed, as discussed in the media. But far more worrying than this is the huge shift in thinking that IDS and Letwin's approach would suggest. Many of the gains made over the past fifteen years would be eroded by such as a policy, and while not billed as such, this is still a war on drugs.