01 Nov Ministers High On Their War On Drugs Need A Speedy Cure
By Simon Jenkins, 1st November 2014
A psychology of macho law-making dominates British drugs policy – in defiance of both public opinion and common sense.
The government should ban all reports on drug legalisation. They get you hooked on rage. Evidence-based reform is a gateway substance to common sense. Just send a message: no thought means no.
Parliament’s response to this week’s report on the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act shows that psychoactive substances are the last taboo to afflict Britain’s elite. It has got over past obsessions with whipping, hanging, sodomy and abortion, but it is still stuck on drugs. There is no point in reading the latest research on drugs policy worldwide. It is spitting in the wind. The only research worth doing is on why drugs policy reduces British politicians to gibbering wrecks.
In 2000 the Police Foundation committee chaired by Lady Runciman (on which I served) proposed an end to imprisonment for “soft” drug possession and cultivation, together with lower penalties for hard drugs. In particular we pointed to the nonsense of classifying half-safe drugs such as ecstasy with heroin, suggesting that the latter was no more harmful than the former. It was pretty mild stuff.
Tony Blair’s Downing Street went ape. What would they say at the Daily Mail, then ruling Britain much as the pope rules Ireland? Blair’s aide Alastair Campbell ordered the hapless home sectary, Jack Straw, to rubbish our report over the weekend before it was even published.
In the event the report was welcomed by the Mail, as well as by the Express, the Telegraph and more liberal papers. The Mail on Sunday even published a poll showing 60% of people in favour of decriminalising cannabis. Such was Straw’s embarrassment that he later partly climbed down. Cannabis law enforcement was eased, but the sense of panic surrounding the subject remained. There has been no liberalisation since.
It did not matter that the law was almost 30 years old and had manifestly failed to suppress narcotic use or abuse. It did not matter that most of the press were in favour of reform, or that at the time, eight Tory shadow ministers admitted to having taken drugs.
Today it still does not matter that a 2012 ComRes poll showed three quarters of MPs in favour of reform. An Observer poll last month showed 52% of the public wanting US-style legalisation of medical and recreational marijuana, while a Sun poll this week had 71% accepting that the “war on drugs” had not worked. The Sun itself concluded: “We can’t just carry on with the status quo.”
If the Archangel Gabriel came down from heaven and said decriminalising drugs would end war, banish poverty, reduce obesity and defeat child sex abuse, it would make no difference to a British cabinet. David Cameron might have favoured reform before taking office, as he will doubtless favour it after leaving – in common with many world leaders. When he has power to do something about it, he runs scared. The great taboo tightens its iron grip on his throat, as it does on that of his ambitious home secretary, Theresa May.
This week’s report is another reminder of the limits of the criminal law in telling people how to order their own lives. It finds no correlation between the toughness of a country’s penalties and drug consumption. You can nudge but you cannot ban. Besides, illegality imposes huge burdens on the justice system, prisons and the health service. A 2009 report by the charity Transform suggested legalisation could save as much as £14bn, while taxing cannabis, as the US has started doing,could raise £1.3bn. Better by far to spend this money on countering addiction and policing the drugs market.
It is foolish to deny that drug abuse can cause harm, as does the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and other substances. This is not an issue. The issue is the capacity of the law to mitigate it. “Sending a message” may make ministers feel tough, but it is clearly wrecking thousands of lives and enriching criminals. Cameron pleads that “our drugs strategy is working”. That some areas of consumption are falling – in tough and tender regimes alike – does not make the policy a good one. Drug abuse is about physical and mental health. It should no more be about crime than is obesity or alcoholism.
The Independent yesterday asked, “Is Britain ready to grow up?“. I fear the answer is no. I cannot face more reports on how much more humane are the drugs policies of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Colorado and Uruguay. I give up reading of the hell that criminalisation – abetted by an antediluvian UN – inflicts on the people of Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and Burma. Pretending to ban cocaine production may delight rightwing opinion, but it exacts a ghastly price from people in producer countries.
As for the government proposal to ban “legal highs”, the Home Office appears not to have heard of the internet. The BBC revealed last August that there are now 23 distinct online operators on the dark web, covering about 250 products. This market has doubled in size in the past year, with heaven knows what unregulated junk flooding the mail.
The best deterrent to drug misuse is publicity, just as the best cure is treatment. Instead Theresa May and her political colleagues (including Labour) are the drug dealers’ useful idiots. To leave young people to the mercy of pushers and adulterators is the real crime. The chaotic nature of these markets causes more harm than do the substances themselves. Nor does the liberal Home Office minister Norman Baker,who backs reform, have a coherent strategy. He wants to “crack down on the Mr Bigs and criminal gangs”. I can hear them laughing. His job should be to regulate them out of business.
The psychology of repressive law-making and its appeal to political machismo is the most sinister branch of public life. The belief of those in power that they can command private behaviour with the flick of a law or the cosh of a penalty is fantasy. I once hoped that sheer embarrassment at the harm they cause might shame Britain’s politicians down the road increasingly taken by those in the rest of Europe and north and south America.
But no. May could not even bring herself to publish her own department’s factual survey on the drugs market for three months of infighting with Baker and the Lib Dems. Britain will soon be to drugs what Ireland is to abortion, in a dark ages zone. Unlike Ireland it cannot even blame religion, only stupidity.