Tougher Prison Sentences ‘Have Little Impact On Flow Of Drugs’

The courts are handing out three times as much prison time for drug offences as a decade ago but such “get tough” sentencing has done little to stem the flow of drugs on to the streets, where prices continue to fall, according to a study.

The research, commissioned by the UK Drug Policy Commission for its launch yesterday, also shows that Britain has the second-highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe and questions the effectiveness of official drug education and prevention programmes.

But the report stops far short of saying that the government’s drug policy has failed and instead prefers to describe its impact as “limited”. It highlights the successful expansion of drug treatment programmes and the decline in cannabis use following the decision to downgrade its criminal status.

Dame Ruth Runciman, chair of the commission, said it would provide objective analysis of drug policy issues in Britain.

Members of the commission, set up with £3m of funding over three years from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, include the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, a former chief constable, a director of the National Treatment Agency and the chief executive of Shelter.

The research published yesterday says that despite substantial investment Britain remains at the top of the European ladder for drug use and drug dependence.

The number of people imprisoned for drug offences each year rose by 111% between 1994 and 2005 and the average length of sentences passed on dealers increased by one third to 37 months over the same period. They calculate that this results in three times as much “prison time” as a decade ago.

“Tougher enforcement should theoretically make illegal drugs more expensive and harder to get. The prices of the principal drugs have declined for most of the last 10 years – a gram of heroin has fallen from £70 in 2000 to £54 in 2005 – and there is no indication that tougher enforcement has succeeded in making drugs less accessible,” says the authors. Overall, the report says that drug use in Britain has broadly stabilised since 2000, with reductions in cannabis use, although cocaine and crack use has reportedly increased.

The number of dependent drug users entering treatment increased from 85,000 in 1998 to 181,000 in 2004-05. More than half the estimated 327,000 problem drug users now have treatment each year, with sharp cuts in waiting times. But the treatment programmes’ impact on overall levels of drug use and crime is limited.