27 February 2008

New Drug Strategy - Oh come on, what did you expect?

We saw the launch today (27.2.08) of the new Ten Year Strategy. Predictably, there has been a sharp swing towards enforcement strategies including much touted proposals to increase confiscation powers, and coerce engagement with treatment via the benefit system.

Equally predictably, the Strategy has received a range of responses, from outright condemnation to mixed welcomes. The response so far has been muted. The responses over the next few weeks will be far more interesting.

But let's take a wider view. None of this should come as a surprise. Did anyone truly expect an embracing of true harm reduction, and admission of failures of past strategy, a consideration of wholescale review? Oh come on! Only the truly deluded could have envisaged anything other than more of the same, with bigger sticks and more mealy carrots.

Those who have predicted reform, or review of the drugs laws, or new developments have singularly failed to recognise that the "war on drugs" far from being over, is just gearing up for its next phase. Bigger powers, less rights, more enforcement, new weapons. This will only be the start. There will be more punitive measures to come.

I don't expect bravery and great things from the Home Office or the machine of Government. They are well past the stage of rational and balanced debate on drug strategy. But what amazes and depresses is the huge range of players who facillitate and legitimise the war on drugs while at the same time decrying its choice of weapons.

Take for example the much-derided "consultation" that led up to the new drugs strategy. Look at the energy that went in to it - Drugscope's series of regional events, the contributions from Transform, Release and others. Some of these organisations must have believed that their contributions would be read, evaluated, pored over. Others knew it was a sham. But still they participated.

In doing so they legitimised both the consultation and the resultant strategy. Rather than, en masse, boycotting the consultation as the farrago that they surely knew it was, they made their contribution. They had their say. Surely more powerful, more striking for a big group to withdraw from the process? But no. And so the new strategy, flaws and all, gains legitimacy from the consultation.

What if? What if as a group Addaction, Turning Point, CRI, Compass, RAPt, Drugscope, EATA, FDAP, Release and Transform had said NO! Said "we won't participate unless we are convinced that the resultant strategy will take real account of our views." They could have done. Once.

Now of course it becomes too dangerous for many of these bodies to bite the hand that feeds. Dependent on contracting culture, the good will of the Home Office, they can't and won't speak out significantly. A finacially weak Drugscope, other contract-dependent providers, political access achieved by compliance and silence.

Any new measure, punitive or otherwise, demands organisations to implement it. Look at the example of the threat to suspend benefit payments to clients who fail to attend an Assessment. This alone could be scuppered overnight if the big drugs agencies said, as a block, that they would not undertake assessments that were achieved at the threat of benefit suspension. So while we watch to see which agencies make the most show of condemning the measures in print, watch with equal care the number of agencies who refuse to take the contracts. No-one will refuse this dirty work because it pays, and refusal will result in decomissioning.

Historically the drug field was diverse, fractured and independent. This did result in a wide variance of provision. But it protected the field from the sort of Stalinist planning and control that we now see.

Having stripped away this independence, consolidated and centralised provision, agencies now have little choice but to comply with directives.

For drug policy to change the drugs field needs to change, and rediscover its voice and independence. This can only happen from the grass roots. We have ceased to be able to reply on the independence of the ACMD, or the representation of the field, to stem the political excesses of Government strategy. In the war on drugs, we have never, so badly, needed some effective resistance.

04 February 2008

alcohol - short term memory loss?

The BBC reported that the Government proposes to introduce new police powers to confiscate alcohol from young people found drinking in public.

Media, Police and groups such as Alcohol Concern all welcomed the measure.

Which is strange because, as far as we can see, the Home office is simply re-announcing a power created more than a decade ago, with the Confiscation of Alcohol (young Persons) Act 1997:
This empowers police to require under 18-s to hand over alcohol in a public place. Failure to do so (without reasonable cause) and to give a name and address when requested summary offence and carries power of arrest.

The Act was slightly amended in 2001 but, to our knowledge remains in force.

We are slightly concerned that Alcohol Concern's spokesman, who had done the media rounds the day before welcoming the new legislation was unaware of the old one. But we were far more concerned that the Home Office seems to have experienced total short term memory loss as to what legislation has already been enacted. Alternatively they may be hoping that the UK population is so stewed that they simply won't spot this blatant attempt at legislative recycling!