If you listen to the noises coming from the government you could be forgiven for assuming the future drugs policy was done and dusted; a harsher version of what’s gone before based on beefed up enforcement, deterrence and repression, there is no debate to be had. As regards cannabis, they are especially closed minded when it comes to any idea of law reform. An anonymous person in the Home Office has been quoted in many news outlets (for example here) this week stating:
A Home Office spokesman said: “There is clear evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can cause damage to mental health in the immediate and longer-term. Even occasional use of cannabis can be dangerous for people with diseases of the circulatory system.
If you want honest, factual, information regarding drugs the Home Office is clearly not the place to go; they are justifying their policy with what can at best be termed exaggerated claims. If the claim that cannabis can cause “damage to mental health” implies causes mental illness it is simply untrue, especially the claim that it can do such harm in the immediate term. Of course people with heart conditions are best advised not to indulge in cannabis use along with a whole raft of other pastimes such as jogging and bicycle riding, but the term “diseases of the circulatory system” is far too wide. This is really a shameful statement.
In addition the Home Office states
The Government does not believe decriminalisation of cannabis is the right approach. Our priorities are clear – we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.
Quite how keeping people away form cannabis is going to help heroin addicts achieve an abstinent lifestyle isn’t explained, but seems rooted in the simplistic “drugs are bad” mindset
The operative word in the quote above is “believe”; the government is following a course it simply believes is right, no matter what the evidence may be and no matter what experience of 40 years of failure should have taught them. If this seems all to familiar, it is. This belief in prohibition as the correct way to deal with drugs was the cornerstone of the drugs policy of last lot, the new coalition government seems dead set on following the same dead end, failed approach for the same reasons.
Mark Easton’s blog exposed the truth behind the present drugs policy in his blog entitled “Should drugs policy be based on facts or opinion?”, a title which sounds like a stupid question; of course drugs policy should be based on fact, as should all government policy. We don’t normally arrest people and give them criminal convictions on the basis that doing so is a popular choice with the public. It seems that with drugs policy though, that’s exactly what we have. Mark quotes an exchange which took place between Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake and shadow home office minister Alan Campbell during a recent Parliamentary debate:
“I seek reassurance that when sound, factual evidence is produced to show what is effective in tackling drug crime and addressing health issues, the hon. Gentleman will sign up to that.”
The answer should have been a simple “Yes”, but was in fact
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks because he is sending me along a route he knows I cannot go down.
we need a drugs policy for this country that reflects the evidence and takes into account the views of the public.
Takes into account the views of the public? Tom Brake followed this up
Will the hon. Gentleman go on the record and confirm that if a policy is backed by clear, evidence-based research that shows the most effective way of tackling drugs to be something that the public do not support, he will back the public rather than scientific fact?
Alan Campbell replied
Other factors must be taken into account [other than scientific evidence], not least the attitude of the public, which I hope is informed by the evidence, as the hon. Gentleman suggests it will be.
This, of course, is a laughable suggestion when the “public opinion” is usually taken to mean that expressed by the Daily Mail or Rupert Murdoch. At the end of the debate Mark Easton described the Government’s drugs minister, the aptly named James Brokenshire, stated:
The Government are opposed to the legalisation of drugs and to decriminalisation for personal use [because] illegal drugs are harmful and no one should take them.
To legalise their supply for personal consumption would send the wrong message to the majority of young people, who do not take drugs on a regular basis, if at all, and, alongside that, it would increase the risk of drug use and abuse. On the specific point about the Portuguese model, we are against that proposal.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, it’s to be business as usual apparently. What makes all this a little different to all that’s gone before though is that suddenly the government and it’s evidence free belief system is out of step with nearly everyone else and awkward questions are being asked in public.
One such “awkward question” concerns those two “special” substances which for reasons understood only by politicians and the fairies are apparently not real drugs – alcohol and tobacco. The awkward question being “why aren’t they covered by the misuse of drugs act”? The previous government tried to answer this by saying they weren’t included because they were culturally established, although there is no such provision within the MoD act for such an exclusion. It’s hard to understand how any objective reading of the MoD act can conclude alcohol and tobacco (and also arguably caffeine) are not clearly within the remit of the act.
The blog has covered the efforts of the Drug Equality Alliance (DEA) several times in the past, their campaign being to ensure an equal treatment under the law for all involved in the drug culture. Why is it indeed that a grower of cannabis can be thrown in jail, yet a brewer can sit with government around the cabinet table? To this end the DEA have just announced that the Home Secretary and ACMD are to be judicially reviewed with regards to Alcohol and Tobacco Policy. This could be a major development which would really throw the cat amongst the pigeons. It isn’t plausible to prohibit alcohol, yet in the view of the government bringing it within the MoD act would mean that was the only option. The DEA argue that in fact the other option is to allow the MoD act to impose real controls on drugs such as proper regulation, not simply prohibition.
The Rule of Law principle of Equal Treatment suggests that either the Home Secretary and ACMD must implement ‘prohibitive controls’ on those concerned with alcohol and tobacco for non-medical or non-scientific use purposes, or they must fully implement a rational, evidence-based system of regulation, via the 1971 Act, similar to that suggested by Transform Drug Policy Foundation’s ‘After the War on Drugs – Blueprint for Regulation‘, for all controlled drugs.
But perhaps the real news this week has been high profile calls for drug law reform, first by Professor Roger Pertwee of Aberdeen University and then by Tim Hollis, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee. These are no lightweights in the drugs debate and their views must have been noticed even by James Brokenshire in the home Office.
The Daily Mail reported Prof Pertwee in a shockingly objective way on Tuesday “Legalise cannabis sales to cut crime and save the NHS millions, says expert”
Calling for a public debate on the scenario, he said: ‘We are allowed to take alcohol and smoke cigarettes and cannabis if it is handled properly is probably not going to be any more dangerous than that.
‘I think that this could be the way forward but it might not work because it depends on a company coming forward and producing branded products.
Actually there is no reason why branding or any form of commercialisation should be allowed for a legalised cannabis regime and that is something many on this side of the debate would oppose strongly. Indeed a large part of the problems we’re seeing with alcohol can be put at the door of the aggressive marketing undertaken by the brewers – marketing often aimed at teenagers.
He also made the totally unworkable suggestion of licensing users, but the point he was making was that vulnerable people should be protected by the law, which is only possible if prohibition is ended.
The comments on the Daily Mail website are worth reading, with many and the highest rated supporting the law reform calls and the lowest rated spouting the prohibition line. This seems to have annoyed someone in the Daily Mail editorial staff and shortly after 9.00am discussion was shut down after only 59 comments made it through.
On Sunday Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside police and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee waded into the fray. The Observer reported
Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside police, said the criminal justice system could offer only a “limited” solution to the UK’s drug problem, a tacit admission that prohibition has failed.
He also hinted at the one thing the government must surely be aware of
Hollis said budget cuts had forced police to “prioritise” resources towards tackling organised criminal networks rather than individuals carrying drugs for personal use.
Interestingly Tim Hollis also had thoughts about the question of alcohol and tobacco
… and added that a debate was needed over whether alcohol and nicotine, which together kill more than 120,000 people a year, should be included in attempts to tackle illegal drugs.
A position that could perhaps impact the judicial review obtained by the DEA?
But what of budgets? It does seem odd that the government is talking of savage cuts to essential services (including the police) and yet seems to be planning to throw even more money down the bottomless pit of prohibition. Perhaps something along these lines explains the Observer’s speculation that
Insiders, however, have told the Observer that officials are looking at “non-prosecution” strategies.
Something is going to have to happen, the present situation is too much like an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, a situation nature just will not allow.
The past month or so has seen a whole series of eminent people – people who actually know about the subject rather than believe their role is to keep the tabloid press happy – call for change. These aren’t “pro drug” as prohibitionists like to call law reform campaigners, they’re people who know and understand that prohibition is not working and is not achieving its aim of reducing drug use, much less eliminating it. These are professional people who want proper, effective, drug control strategies founded not on faith but on hard evidence and in that they are not alone.