Are we about to be sold down the river? Last year it was announced there would be a Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) investigation into drug policy which would be free to look at all the options. The committee asked for written submissions and earlier this year I, along with many other people, sent in our observations which were duly published – you can see them all here (PDF document).
It was a little strange perhaps that the first – and most high profile person – called to give evidence in favour of law reform wasn’t an expert, but a famous personality in the shape of Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin group.
The big problem is the committee hasn’t given any indication of its timetable, or really even who it intends to call for evidence, so we don’t know much about what they are planning to investigate. Actually, the committee did announce the name of one surprise “expert” they intended to call which raised a few worried eyebrows at the time; Peter Hitchens, the Mail on Sunday columnist well-known for his rabid prohibitionist stance.
But last week the chair of the committee, Keith Vaz, came out with a statement which if we take it at face value, would seem to indicate the whole HASC investigation is a stitch-up. The HASC website announced two more sessions last Thursday:
The first panel will be Russell Brand and Chip Somers, the Chief Executive of the Charity Focus12 which helped Russell Brand overcome his addiction. The Committee will be questioning Russell Brand about his own experiences and about his latest project, a documentary of the nature of addiction and how it is viewed by society.
The second panel will be three critics of the decriminalisation of drug use. Peter Hitchens is a journalist who is currently working on a book entitled ‘The War We Never Fought – Britain’s non-existent war on drugs.’ Kathy Gyngell is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies. She has written extensively on the use of methadone maintenance and successive governments drugs strategies. Mary Brett is the trustee of ‘Cannabis Skunk Sense’ whose mission is to raise awareness of the continuing and growing threat to children, teenagers and their families, posed by cannabis use.
It’s worth mentioning in passing that Kathy Gyngell was allowed to submit two written submissions to the committee – items 01 – “CPS” and 116 – “Centre for Policy Studies”. That aside, it’s legitimate for the committee to hear from the people who this blog often calls “the usual suspects”, they are after all prominent prohibition campaigners who feature large in the ongoing debate, or it would be if the same opportunity were given to us – the law reform campaigners. It’s also right to hear from people like Russell Brand who have come through bad times with drug addiction and from the people who help.
My concerns are not about who is invited to these sessions, it’s why they have been.
What makes this sound somewhat like a stitch-up is the comment from Keith Vaz which accompanied the announcement on the website. Keith Vaz said:
Hearing from those personally affected by drugs use is essential to our inquiry. I welcome Russell Brand’s openness about his addiction and recovery. I hope that his experiences will help us understand the nature of addiction and the impact that it has on addicts and those around them
We’ll come back to this later, of more concern was the comment about the second session and the reason he gave for inviting the prohibition lobby:
We have heard previously from those who support the decriminalisation of drugs. I look forward to hearing from those who oppose this measure. Drug education and treatment are widely accepted as being vital to preventing and tackling drug use and addiction, but there is still a great debate about how we deal with supply and just how effective a deterrent legislation is for those who take drugs.
There is so much about this comment that is worrying for anyone hoping for a fair, thorough and objective assessment of the situation. Firstly
We have heard previously from those who support the decriminalisation of drugs
The committee has heard from Richard Branson and a few others who have supported law reform, but it has hardly heard the entire argument nor has it looked at the full range of options available. Yet this seems to be the opinion of Mr Vaz who now wants to hear from those who oppose “decriminalisation”. He is also apparently still thinking of “drugs” as being a single issue, as if all “illegal” drugs are the same in nature and – somehow – different from “legal” drugs and therefore there can only be one approach for dealing with them all.
The second part of that statement also shows a worrying lack of ability to think flexibly and objectively about the options. When he says
Drug education and treatment are widely accepted as being vital to preventing and tackling drug use and addiction,
He seems to be assuming that all use is abuse, that all drug use leads to addiction and the only option is to prevent people using drugs at all. In this Keith Vaz is demonstrating a prohibitionist mindset which is quite unacceptable for someone heading a supposedly objective investigation into the future of prohibition. It is a very legitimate question to ask if drug use wouldn’t be better managed than repressed? He seems unable to comprehend such a concept – other than, of course with alcohol which he probably doesn’t see as a “real” drug anyway.
The last part is perhaps interesting:
but there is still a great debate about how we deal with supply and just how effective a deterrent legislation is for those who take drugs.
That of course is the main point he’ll be hearing about from the prohibitionists; that the law should be applied with more vigour and the reason prohibition has failed is because we haven’t been authoritarian enough.
This brings us to the first session featuring Russell Brand and the question about actually asking drug users how they feel about all this. Because whether or not Transform or CLEAR or anyone else is going to be invited to give evidence on behalf of drug law reform, the committee hasn’t looked at the group of people most affected by it all; the consumers. Thing is, there are rather a lot of them and the vast majority are not addicts.
What they are doing is looking at people like Russell Brand; people who got into trouble with their drug use and turned to charities for help to beat the addiction. While this is a valid aspect for the committee to look at, it doesn’t reflect the vast majority of drug users experience. It especially doesn’t reflect the vast majority of cannabis users experience and it’s what to do about cannabis that is the elephant in the room for this investigation.
It is a fact that the vast, vast majority of drug use is non-problematic, that extends to poly drug use of “party” drugs and psychedelics.; most wreck-heads come down to earth after a year or so of overdoing things, perhaps sometimes all the wiser for having learned their limits. Indeed it’s true to say that the vast majority of recreational drug use is done for fun and remains fun, despite the lurid reports in the gutter press tabloids.
But most importantly it is also true that the vast majority of drug use is recreational cannabis use, which while it is perhaps not totally without downsides is really as safe as drug use can be for the overwhelming majority of users, certainly of adult users. We all know the arguments regarding the comparisons with drinking or tobacco and that in many respects – at least for adults – cannabis is a pussy cat amongst drugs.
Cannabis is also used by many more people than any other drug, there are literally millions of cannabis users. This is no small minority section of the population, alienated from the mainstream, cannabis users come from every background, every profession, every age and every class. Cannabis use is an established part of our culture, it isn’t going to go away.
When considering what to do drugs and drug use, cannabis is a very special and distinct issue, affecting an order of magnitude or more of the population than any other drug use.
Yet we see no proper investigation of this by the HASC, it really is as if an elephant is crashing around the room which everyone pretends they cannot see because they don’t want to acept it’s there.
This can only be for one reason; what we’re seeing with the HASC drugs inquiry is a stitch-up. What I expect to see as a result of all this is a general support for the present drugs policy, possibly with some recommendation to make SATIVEX more available as the officially approved version of cannabis for medical users – perhaps along with some way to twist the law a bit to allow it to be put into a different classification under the misuse of Drugs Act.
I hope I’m wrong, but somehow I doubt it. Sadly Keith Vaz has a record of support for a hard-line prohibitionist stance toward cannabis. In 2003 he did support the reclassification of cannabis to class C, but then he supported the move back to B in 2008. Also in that year he supported a motion to ban the sale of seeds and as recently as 2011 he showed his support for keeping cannabis as class B. He has a history of voting against drug law reform.