The Chief Medical Officer sparks outrage by mildly stating the obvious: the drug laws aren’t working

Prof Dame Sally Davies
Prof Dame Sally Davies, TOTALLY BAKED OFF HER SKULL. (Legal note: Prof Dame Sally Davies is not totally baked off her skull in this photo.)

Poor Dame Sally Davies. She gives a wide-ranging and harmless-sounding interview on Radio 3, expecting presumably that it will be listened to by a few dozen 62-year-olds in comfortable sweaters and be forgotten by the morning. Instead, it’s plastered all over the news: I’VE TAKEN CANNABIS SAYS CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, yells The Daily Mail. What’s more, she “appeared to question the policy of treating drug abuse as a criminal offence”.

Why are people still surprised when senior health officials and scientists say these things? Either that they’ve taken it (it was the Sixties! She was 20 years old! Of course she did) or that they don’t think that prohibition is a helpful move? Her actual quote, by the way, was:

I think we have a health problem and we would do well as a nation to look at it as a health problem. I think there’s quite a lot of evidence from other countries, and science, about how you could go about that.

In my boring broken-record way, I’ll say the following: everyone sensible agrees that taking drugs, including cannabis, has health risks. Specifically, cannabis appears to have a causal link to psychiatric disease, especially if used during adolescence. Proponents of drug law reform, like me, have to admit that.

The point, though, is that if you want to reduce the amount of harm that a drug causes, and the number of users of that drug, it appears that prohibition is not the way to do it. Illegal drugs are more dangerous than legal, regulated ones, because they’re of uncertain strength and purity. (That’s why making comparatively safe drugs like ecstasy illegal, encouraging the rapid spread of “legal highs” with unknown effects, is so startlingly stupid.) Making them illegal criminalises otherwise law-abiding people, and causes other crimes. And even if that were not the case, the experience of countries around the world is that, on average, having harsh drug laws does not seem to reduce drug use. (Someone always points to Singapore at this stage, as though one country in which harsh drug laws and low drug use coexist is enough to counterbalance the global trend.)

If you’re anti-drugs, if you want the harm that drugs cause to be reduced, and if you’re honest and assess the evidence dispassionately, I think you have to agree with Dame Sally: drug addiction is a health problem, just as alcoholism and smoking are. Treating it as a criminal problem is unhelpful. Cue people saying “but drugs are bad”. Well, yes, they can be. But the point is, again, if you want to reduce the problems they cause, dumb blanket prohibitionism is just about the worst thing you can do.

Hey ho, more shouting into the void. No doubt I’ll be back in six weeks writing the same damn piece, when the Chief Rabbi or whoever becomes the next person to spark outrage by stating the obvious.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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