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Why Britain Won't Be a Drug-Taker's Paradise Any Time Soon

Yesterday's government report was a red herring.
Max Daly
London, GB

(Collage by Marta Parszeniew)

So it seems, from what we were told during yesterday's drug policy jamboree (or "clusterfuck", as one Home Office insider descibed it to me), that the government has seen the error of its ways. No longer will our drug laws be driven by fear of tabloid wrath and outdated policies and moral attitudes. In fact, we'll all be smoking reefers in our local Waitrose café without fear of arrest within a couple of years. We'll follow Portugal and Colorado down the yellow brick road of narco-enlightenment. Ding Dong the Wicked Drug War is Dead. All hail Richard Branson. Ride like the wind, drug legalisation.


But let's just recap on what actually happened on Drug Thursday. Two months late, the Home Office begrudgingly published an irksome report (which it had hoped to secretly strangle to death in the Tower), about a fact-finding tour of drug policy innovations in 11 countries. Released alongside a government review of new psychoactive substances and the latest drug seizure stats, the globe-trotting report had found no evidence that arresting and jailing people for drugs deterred drug use. It said that Portugal's system of decriminalisation was a success, the inference being that the UK should be looking at making dramatic changes to its drug laws ASAP.

The media got high off the ink on its pages. The Guardian described it as a "breakthrough after 40 years of denial". The Independent front page asked "Drug abuse: Are we ready to grow up?" Twitter and Facebook were alive with the unbridled joy of drug law reformers who have been admirably chipping away at the government's resistance to change for decades. Even the Sun, intoxicated by the mood, joined in, wheeling out a poll that said 71 per cent of its readers think the War on Drugs is a failure. The paper demanded: "Something has to change".

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, it so happened that there was a debate, called by Brighton's Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, about… Britain's dodgy drug policy. During the debate, government drug minister Norman Baker, a Lib Dem, ramped up the drug policy hype. "The genie is out of the bottle on drug reform," he told the sparse scattering of MPs who had bothered to turn up. Teetering between two stools, Baker called on his own coalition government to end the "robotic rhetoric" on drugs.


But stow your bongs and keep that wrap stuck up your arse. The harsh reality is that although our cranky drug policy is badly in need of an overhaul, Drug Thursday was a false dawn. That the UK government, Tory or Labour, will make radical changes to Britain's drug policy any time soon, despite the very understandable ideological flag-waving from the law reformers, is a chimera.

The clues aren't hard to find if you look at what those with actual power had to say. About the 11-country fact-finding report, a Home Office source who probably looks liked Draco Malfoy, sneered: "The Lib Dems have blown £40,000 of taxpayers' money on a magical mystery tour around the world looking at countries with soft drugs laws." Then Downing Street slapped down their coalition partners: "The Lib Dem policy would see drug dealers getting off scot-free and send an incredibly dangerous message to young people about the risks of taking drugs." The fact the report was signed off by Theresa May is a red herring. She proably signed it flicking a V at the executive summary while stabbing the appendix with one of her leopard-skin stilletos.

The default "sending a message to young people" government response to the notion of either decriminalisation or legalisation is disingenuous. The government knows full well that young people routinely ignore messages from politicians on drugs, clubs packed full of people taking class-A drugs each weekend is proof of that. The real concern behind this statement is not young people, but voters and newspaper editors. The subtext is: "We will not sanction drug dealers or hand out legal drugs to children, please vote for us."


The media got the wrong end of the stick on this report. It did not contain ministerial recommendations, merely civil service observations. In reality the international drug policy tour was a sop handed to the Lib Dems after Downing Street rejected calls, outlined in a wide-ranging home affairs select committee report into drug policy in 2012, to set up a Royal Commission on the issue. The government had thrown the Lib Dems a bone to chew on, only for them to snatch it back and shoo them away just as they had started to get their teeth into it.

Dangling between two stools, Norman Baker found himself in the ridiculous position of announcing the genie was out of the bottle while simultaneously shoving it back in again when he back-tracked that "the UK government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs".

The depressing real-politik of the situation is that there is an election on the horizon and the Tory-led government would rather install Grayson Perry as PM than be seen to entertain "soft" drug policies, which are seen as vote losers by scared-stiff MPs, because a huge chunk of those who will bother to vote in next year's general election are aged over 50 and are loyal readers of fiercely anti-drug papers such as the Daily Mail.

Britain needs to change its drug laws. The collateral damage of the drug trade and the cost to individuals and society are undoubtedly increased as a result of the government's desire to stash the drugs issue in the attic. But the only party pushing for reform is the one with nothing to lose, and whose grasp of power and influence on policy making will gradually slip away.



Previously in Narcomania - No, Drug Addicts Won't Be Spiking Children's Sweets This Halloween

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