Addiction and the Law
When it comes to addiction, our legal system faces a quandary. Drug addiction can be characterised as a state of dependence on a substance that can result in behavioural change. The difficulty is that the law may only punish us for the actions for which we have control. If an addiction causes an addict to carry out a crime, yet he is not fully responsible for his actions, what is the law to do?
One side of the argument says that addiction is not an illness, and should not be treated as such. A crime, they say, is a crime. But opponents of this view say that addiction is indeed an illness, and that jailing addicts does nothing to solve the problem.
Addiction and British LawThe main body of legislation on drug addiction can be found in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Since this law came into force, our understanding of drugs and addiction has gone through huge changes, and the law has seen a series of amendments. The most sweeping changes were brought about in 2005 with the new Drugs Act. However, the basic premise, that all illegal drugs are dangerous and those who take them are criminals, remains the same. Critics argue that if we are to ever tackle the problem effectively, a more objective approach is needed.
The 1971 Act brought the current drug classifications of A, B and C into usage, with “A” being used for what we often refer to as “hard drugs”. These classifications have provoked enormous controversy: Some class A drugs, such as ecstasy, cause no physical dependency, and are relatively harmless when compared with heroin or crystal meth. This has led the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, an independent panel of experts, to recommend the “declassification” of ecstasy. The government, however, has refused, considering the political effects of such a declassification too damaging.
In its current form, the law now states that anyone possessing a class A drug can now be jailed for up to seven years, or fined, or both. However, “possession with intent to supply” Class A drugs can result in life imprisonment. This is important, because anyone found in possession of a quantity of drugs over a prescribed amount can automatically be assumed to have intent to supply.
However, the 2005 Act does introduce broader grounds for the treatment of addicts. Courts can now recommend offenders for treatment and community service instead of prison – though it is still down to the court's decision.
The law also draws the connection between addiction and other crimes, and people arrested for burglary or shoplifting can now be tested for addiction. The intention is that addicts ought to be treated differently to other criminals, and their drug dependency taken into account. However, theft and other crimes are often treated without regard for any connection to addiction: Addicts with little control over their compulsion can still very easily find themselves behind bars. However, according to Drugscope, a leading UK independent drugs information centre, few addicts actually take up crime as a direct result of addiction.
Those placed on Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) can also be tested for drug use. It is hoped that the police will use these powers in order to provide the relevant treatment to offenders.
A New ApproachAccording to UK law, it still seems that those addicted to drugs are invariably regarded as criminals. Whilst there have been marginal changes to the way the law operates, and while testing and treatment for addiction is becoming more commonplace, there is still a tendency to cast drug addicts as villains, rather than victims.
But whilst addicts might be responsible for contracting their illness, must they also be held accountable for the symptoms?
The crimes of addicts, combined with the cost of locking them up, amounts to a total cost of billions of pounds every year. The effectiveness of treatment, as opposed to punishment, has demonstrated that dealing with the illness itself, rather than its consequences, is not only more beneficial for the individuals concerned, but also dramatically less costly for the taxpayer and society. But it may yet be some time before politicians develop the courage to move away from the demonisation of addicts, and start promoting answers.