New substance strategy is a good start

GUERNSEY’S new substance use strategy acknowledges a growing acceptance that simply attempting to reduce the supply of drugs is not sufficient to tackle the demand for them.

It is the closest islanders will get to an official admission that its expensive and punitive ‘war on drugs’ was lost largely before it started.

The island has thrown millions at stopping drugs coming to the island, thereby making it a very attractive market for suppliers to target, instead of focusing on harm reduction for users. The damage caused by so-called legal highs is a case in point.

To be clear, Guernsey should not go soft on drugs, nor would islanders expect it to do so. But there has to be a recognition that not only will people experiment with drugs, use is widespread and, for some, part of a way of life.

This is why harsh penalties for minor incidents of possession or personal use create so much controversy on social media as ‘proof’ that the island’s judicial system is out of touch and biased against young people.

Undoubtedly, these are difficult areas. The island does not want to encourage substance abuse nor does it want its (usually) young people criminalised for doing something they do not especially regard as a crime.

In particular, it wants to avoid the harm that can be caused to individuals by trusting whatever they can get from a dealer, however it was carried here, and it especially wants to avoid the criminality and open dealing that so blights other jurisdictions and communities.

Public Health has examined options used in other jurisdictions and concludes not only that there is another way, but shifting the Bailiwick Drug and Alcohol Strategy to become a health issue ‘reflects a growing acceptance that reducing supply alone is not sufficient to tackle the drug problem’. It emphasises the need for a ‘balanced approach’.

It is a hard balance to strike, especially from the island’s existing and long-term position on drugs and those who use them. But viewing substance abuse primarily as a health issue and reconsidering sentencing policies on personal use is a pragmatic step forward.

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