Baroness Deech has already commented about the Select Committee on Misuse of Drugs (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmhaff/184/18402.htm). While I agree with much of her argument I take rather a different approach. I do not believe we should be ‘soft’ on drugs, on the contrary I think we should give an evidence based approach more serious consideration than we have so far. Depenalising drugs with a view to reducing the personal harm they do isn’t being ‘soft’. Nor do I minimize the serious harm that cannabis is doing; modern skunk is poisonous stuff and the evidence is overwhelming for its causing an increase in schizophrenia-like illnesses. It creates all the harms that Lady Deech identifies. But we should look to getting more cost effective solutions than we have at present. The current policy has been in place for many years. Use of drugs is reducing somewhat in recent years, almost certainly for reasons disconnected to the policy. I think it would be worthwhile looking closely at the approach that Portugal is taking in depenalising drugs.
Preventing consumption of drugs is a high priority for the new Portuguese Government. Cannabis is seen as a particular problem as its use is very widespread. The Portuguese have found that mass-media campaigns had proved to be ineffective and more targeted ways of getting the message across were being tried. Medical professionals were involved in the training of school-teachers, so that they could communicate accurate messages about the harms caused by drug use to their students. The fall in heroin use was likely to be a result of people becoming more aware of the harmful effects. Portugal continues to make strenuous efforts to disrupt the supply of drugs, from street-level dealers to international traffickers. Portuguese authorities continue to pursue drug traffickers and dealers with the same rigour that one would find in the UK, the USA and other countries where possession of small amounts of drugs is still an imprisonable crime. There is no suggestion that depenalisation of drug users has resulted in any more relaxed attitude to drug traffickers. It is also important to emphasise that the new policy in Portugal does not appear to be associated with a social toleration of drug use. Depenalisation need not imply ‘coffee shops’ on the Dutch model. The Portuguese model is still tough on drugs but uses an educational harm reduction approach that we could learn a lot from. The new policy has reduced public concern about drug use in that country, and is supported by all political parties and the police. The current political debate in Portugal is about how treatment is funded and its governance structures, not about depenalisation itself. Although it is not certain that the Portuguese experience could be replicated in the UK, surely their model merits closer consideration.