Jeremy Sare on the French drugs model

The prime minister told Parliament last week he was determined to “stamp out” legal highs and new club drugs.

There is no hope, however, of halting the inexorable rise in prevalence of these drugs so long as the Home Office holds responsibility for drug policy and so long as the primary response is about enforcement rather than education and prevention. A dedicated drugs agency, similar to the model adopted by France for the last 30 years could be much more effective in preventing drug misuse in Britain.

When I was a drugs policy official for the Home Office, I attended the occasional tedious European summit in Brussels. My counterparts were always amazed I worked for, what they called, the “police department” when they were invariably health or welfare officials. Didn’t we all agree that drugs are predominantly a health and education issue? No, not in Britain. Our government was constantly seeking to strengthen the law to send out “tough messages” to our young people.

I visited senior officials in the French Drugs Ministry (MILDT) in Paris to compare our respective approaches to cannabis use, such as numbers of arrests and levels of sanction. The director was mostly baffled by my questions and preferred to discuss the new national network of 700 drug centres, where anyone could get advice on cutting down or stopping cannabis, but also cigarettes, alcohol, medicinal, and other illegal drugs. Did we not draw on expertise from across departments for a holistic policy on all substance misuse? I confessed I had never even met any officials concerned with tobacco policy, although obviously to a user of cannabis it is a critical issue when trying to stop.

In France, they do not wait to offer interventions on drugs until a crime is committed or a family begins unravelling through addiction. They have serious drug problems, of course, but their collaborative approach has resulted in a much lower level of drug related deaths than the UK’s, and levels of use of drugs like cocaine and ecstasy are at about a quarter of the UK’s.

When I returned to Whitehall, I circulated a paper to my bosses on the French’s more enlightened policy structure. Not only did the submission not reach ministers, it failed to elicit a single response from my erstwhile colleagues. It was not surprising; our drug strategy was, and is now, about addiction and crime not about preventing drug use and it continues to suffer from historic departmental “turf wars.”

The current mechanism for monitoring the Drugs Strategy 2010 is the inter-ministerial committee; a woefully inadequate decision-making body, which I attended as an official. Departments often do not send representatives which underlines the lack of a co-ordinated approach. It was not a business-like forum, the tone was more like, “so, tell us what have you’ve been up to lately?” There is an absence of transparency about the committee—there are no minutes available and it is not even mentioned in the drug strategy document.

One area invariably neglected has been drug education in schools. Although officials and ministers have that recognised the new wave of club drugs presents a unique and revolutionary threat to young people’s health, there is simultaneously considerably less information available to help prevent it. The government’s response is simply to amend the process for making the drugs illegal more rapidly. Unfortunately, the legal changes have little or no impact on behaviour and prevalence—ministers are pulling frantically on levers which are not even connected to the machine.

The home secretary Theresa May has just set out her priorities to her Advisory Council on drugs and referred to neither education nor prevention. But why should she? It is not her responsibility. She could have been reminded by her drugs minister Lord Henley that drugs policy should be joined up, but he is a recent appointee and has no background in the subject. In fact such is the low esteem of the position in government, that he is the eighth drugs minister in nine years, which means the post is marginally less stable than being manager of Chelsea FC.

The French drugs agency has education as a central pillar of its business. Currently 60 percent of schools in Britain conduct lessons on drugs for one hour or less per year and there is no measurement of its efficacy.

The Amy Winehouse and Angelus Foundations are backing a restructuring of government responsibilities on drugs and are currently petitioning the Department of Education to make drugs education part of the national curriculum. However such is their disdain for these matters, that the Department of Education even declined to be the responsible department for the petition. Maryon Stewart, founder of the Angelus Foundation, said, “The heavy use of these drugs by clubbers has already seeped out in to the rest of young people’s normal lives where these unknown drugs are easily accessible. The case for a huge education campaign is unanswerable.”

Simple advice such as, never mix alcohol with GBL has been on posters in French clubs for years. The budget for TalktoFrank has been slashed by 40 percent—public information expenditure has been deemed “wasteful” by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

But as former President of Harvard, Derek Bok, once said, “if you thought education was expensive, try ignorance.”

Jeremy Sare is parliamentary advisor to the Angelus Foundation