The end of the ‘War on Drugs’? We’ll have to wheat and see.

Next month the UN General Assembly will hold a Special Session on drug policy reform (UNGASS 2016), the first conference of this subject matter since 1998. In 1998 the international community resolved to strive towards a drug-free world.

Well in 2012 the heads of state of Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico called for another conference to be held before the proposed dates of 2019 or 2020. These countries stated that “drug policy reform can no longer be postponed.” Experts are hailing this conference to be the beginning of the end of the ‘War on Drugs’.

This has interesting implications for custodial estates, and we are eager to explore what these might be.

To begin with I looked at the influence and contribution Penal Reform International (PRI) have had on this Session. PRI organised a consultation with various other civil society organisations and presented their recommendations to the UN. They will be present at the conference later this month and are aiming to highlight key issues such as proportionate sentencing for drug-related crime and harm reduction policies in custodial estates for drug users.

The PRI recommended that drug-use and possession should be decriminalised and sentences for other drug related offences should be proportionate.

My first thought was that the issue of proportionate sentencing was one that did not fit in with Gove’s prison reforms. Since announcing that he would like to reform the prisons Gove has insisted he can do so without lowering inmate numbers. If proportionate sentencing for drug related crimes were introduced might that be seen by the current government as going soft on drug criminals? Of course the counter argument is that drug policy should be a public health issue and not a criminal issue.  I will be intrigued to see if this contention comes to a head.

With that view in mind (that drugs policy should be a health issue and not a criminal one) promoting harm reduction policies in custodial estates would involve increased access to health care to mitigate the chances of overdose etc. Viewing drugs this way would hopefully stop people being scared from seeking heath-care, whether that be urgent medical attention in the event of an overdose, or help for an addiction. This would be particularly useful in custodial estates because there are a disproportionate amount of inmates with drug problems that do not receive the appropriate care.

Furthermore, the PRI went on to recommend that other non-custodial measures should be used more prolifically than they currently are. According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures  these sorts of measures are intended to promote greater community involvement as well as instilling in offenders a sense of responsibility to their community.

If the outcome of this conference is that drug policy should be altered to address health issues as opposed to criminalising individuals this will affect prisons in several ways.

Firstly, inmate numbers will drop and instead addicts will receive professional help, others will be required to put back into the community. This attitude seems very in line with our ethos here: recognising that prisoners are able to contribute positively to society.

It will be interesting to see how these developments go on to affect custodial estates. The conference later this month as well as the prison reforms announced by the government earlier this year set the landscape hopefully for an exciting change in the way we see people in prison.