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Punitive Drug Laws Are Failing, UK Government Study Finds

Conservatives delayed the release of a landmark study for several months, according to Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker
October 30, 2014, 2:55pm
Image via Reuters

There is no direct link between the enforcement of drug laws targeting personal possession and decreased levels of drug use, the UK government's first evidence-based report has found.

Members of the country's Conservative party "suppressed" the Home Office study for several months due to a coalition debate that broke out over its conclusions, according to Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today program on Thursday, Baker said the evidence supporting a more lenient approach to drug possession was "so overwhelming that the status quo is not tenable." He said that some Conservatives did not like the evidence, but "if you see a tree, it is a tree."

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However, the Prime Minister's office issued a statement on the findings and immediately ruled out the possibility of easing laws on possession, stating that the report "provides no support whatsoever for the Lib Dem's 'reckless' policy of decriminalization."

"In fact, it clearly states that it would be inappropriate to draw those kind of conclusions," the statement read. "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."

Baker added that a decriminalized model, as adopted by countries such as Portugal, was not a "soft option" and said that the government wanted to "get tough on those who are causing misery, who are causing harm to our society — the drug dealers."

Michael Ellis, a Tory parliament member on the Home Affairs Select Committee, called the Lib Dem's drug policy "dangerous and irresponsible."

Britain's upper classes are less likely to be busted for drugs. Read more here.

He told the BBC, "[They] have frankly hijacked this report, they're spinning it, it's a flight of fancy on their part."

"Their frankly pro-drugs policy is dangerous and irresponsible. Let's tell it for what it is, they are looking towards a decriminalization agenda. The report doesn't actually make one recommendation, it doesn't actually come to one conclusion, and it's being spun," he said.

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The controversial report was published on Thursday and signed off by Baker and home secretary Theresa May, although Baker has said it had been ready for publication since July. It is the first official study in more than 40 years of 'war on drugs' rhetoric in the way of harsher penalties for possession of heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and other drugs.

The document explores the successes of a health-led approach in Portugal, which has led to a reduction in the use of most drugs, as well as drug-related HIV and AIDS.

George Murkin, policy and communications for Transform, a think tank that campaigns for international legal regulation of drugs, told VICE News, "This is a hugely important report. It's the first time in over 40 years that the home office has admitted that harsh drug laws do not reduce drug use. That's a significant admission from the government."

He added that the Conservatives' reluctance to act on the evidence was "hugely frustrating.

"It really show the need for UK drug policy to be based on evidence. For the past 40 years it simply hasn't been," he said. "There isn't much of a commitment to evidence-based drug policy when any evidence against that is actively suppressed."

Khat Power: The latest war on drugs. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @BenBryant