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Monday, October 15, 2012 

Want a true legacy, Nick?

Whenever there's a new, in-depth, excellently researched and extremely carefully worded report released which calls for a reform of our increasingly antiquated drug laws, it's always worth going and seeing what the Daily Mail has written about it.  The influence of newspapers may well be in long-term decline, but when it comes to social policy it's still the right-wing tabloids that rule the roost.  If they're against it, it's an incredibly brave government that does the opposite.  

Much as we now spit at the very mention of the name Tony Blair, it's worth remembering that on occasion he did go against the puritanism of the Mail; not on crime, obviously, as that was a battle he was at one with them on, but as for the liberalisation of gambling, the licensing laws and also on the reclassification of cannabis to Class C he ignored Paul Dacre's opposition and pushed the reforms through.  One of Gordon Brown's first acts as prime minister was to ignore the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and put cannabis back in Class B, in an act that certainly wasn't meant to curry favour with his pal Dacre.  Supposedly meant to "send a message" that use of any recreational drugs wasn't OK, all it did was waste more money and police time.

The UK Drug Policy Commission's final report has then, as you might have expected, been giving the Mail treatment.  Their article, which doesn't feature on the voluminous front page of their website, does the classic trick of misrepresenting the report by picking on one comparison it uses, ignoring a crucial sentence which clarifies their stance, and then asks those opposed to the use of recreational drugs in all circumstances to comment on this calumny.  Hence the Mail's report claims the report says "smoking cannabis is just like eating junk food", when it naturally says nothing of the sort. What it does say is (on page 108, PDF):

A small but significant segment of the population will use drugs. We do not believe that pursuing the goal of encouraging responsible behaviour means seeking to prevent all drug use in every circumstance. This is not to say that we consider drug use to be desirable. Just like with gambling or eating junk food, there are some moderately selfish or risky behaviours that free societies accept will occur and seek to limit to the least damaging manifestations, rather than to prevent entirely.

The Mail quotes the second half of the paragraph, but not the first part which makes clear why they're making the comparison.   Much of the rest of the Mail's report is a fair summing up of the UKDPC's conclusions, but it's the headline and opening sentence that as always set the tone.

It's a great shame, and shows exactly the hurdles that still need to be leapt through to get anything approaching sensible coverage of calls for drug law reform, especially as the report's conclusions are thoroughly conservative and incremental rather than revolutionary.  It doesn't advocate the decriminalisation of all drugs, let alone their legalisation; what it does suggest is that the possession of a small amount of a controlled drug could be made a civil rather than a criminal offence, leading to fines and referrals to drug awareness or treatment sessions rather than sanctions through the criminal courts.  The report recommends that cannabis would be a good place to start, and if and only if evaluations of the policy suggested there hadn't been a substantial increase in usage or other negative effects, then it could be extended to other drugs.  Similarly, it suggests that either decriminalising or altering the sanctions for the growing of cannabis for personal use could strike a blow against the current situation where empty houses or warehouses are rented or broken into and used by criminal gangs to grow the high-strength strains of the drug that have caused such concern over recent years.

For those who, like me, think we could go relatively quickly from prohibition to the strict regulation and sale of the relatively safe recreational drugs, such as cannabis, MDMA, LSD and "magic mushrooms" with few problems, while decriminalising the harder "Class As", this report is far less radical than it thinks it is.  Where it shines though is in the area which is less sensational: with recommendations for supporting "responsible behaviour", recognising that drug specific education as it stands doesn't work, through to further encouraging the use of needle exchanges up to pill testing services it isn't afraid to say that drug use, like it or not, isn't going to disappear or be eradicated regardless of the apparent fall in use.  It also notes that recovery has to be tailored to the individual, despite what some influential recovered addicts have been given an hour of prime time television to claim.  Most of all, it accepts we need better research into prohibited drugs across the board, something made all the more difficult by their very illegality.

More optimistically, it calls for a cross-party political forum to be set up to examine where drug policy to go from here.  Sadly, even if one were to be created, should it come up with the "wrong" conclusions and proposals then it's highly unlikely it would get us any further.  With both the main parties clearly wedded to prohibition, regardless of how this report has apparently been welcomed even by the likes of Jack Straw, ideally there should be someone from the third party with a high profile who could make a break with the failed policies of the past by being clear about where we've been going wrong for so long.  Want a legacy that could eventually sideline your role in the coalition, Nick?

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