Early online reactions this morning to the recommendation by the Royal College of Physicians that drug use and addiction should be treated as a public health problem rather than a crime is fairly hostile. “There’s no such thing as addiction”. “Lock ’em up”.
Of course there’s such a thing as addiction. At the moment, I’m addicted to early episodes of The Bill. One of the most striking things is the way that the world has changed since the 1980s, when this iconic TV series started.
Everything has to be written down or typed with the aid of carbon paper and Tippex. In an emergency, you have to find the nearest functional phone box. A woman who is being beaten black and blue by her police sergeant husband is given a sympathetic hearing, but told that there’s no crime involved because it’s a “private matter”.
And everybody smokes. In the office, in the canteen, in the Interview Room.
Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Smokers may have an emotional attachment to the rituals of smoking – the first cigarette of the day – a celebratory cigar – making up a pipe. And then there’s the social aspect – it’s part of what you do in the pub or at a party.
Yet here we are, 30 years later – smoking is still legal, but it’s been eliminated from the public space and become socially unacceptable. We’ve put resources into helping people to quit – something that even the most strongly motivated people find difficult (according to GPs Behind Closed Doors, it takes, on average, seven attempts to finally kick the habit).
I’m increasingly convinced that redefining the use of non-therapeutic drugs is the way to go – bring it out into the open and treat it as a public health problem. Give people legal access to narcotics; control the quality and supply; put resources into prevention and rehabilitation programmes; put the dealers out of business and keep people out of the creaking criminal justice system.