Saturday, August 16, 2008

Drug prohibition – an untenable hypocrisy

Julian Critchley has come out and said what those in charge of UK drug policy won't admit: prohibition doesn't work

The former head of the government's UK anti-drug co-ordination unit (UKADCU), Julian Critchley, posted to BBC Home Affairs correspondent Mark Easton's blog last week, The War on Drugs, calling for the legalisation of drugs. In his post he also reports how those he met during his time at the unit knew that criminalisation was causing more harm than the drugs themselves. (This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the damning report from the prime minister's strategy unit from 2003.)

Critchley says:

I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view: the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the Government's policy was actually causing harm.

Critchley is to be congratulated for speaking out with such candour on the issue. I have met many former and current civil servants who are of the same opinion, but haven't gone public. What Critchley makes absolutely clear is that many, if not most of those working in the drugs field are knowingly colluding with a regime that actively causes harm. Their silence is not based on ignorance but is tacit support for one of the great social policy disasters of the last 100 years.

Critchley, having retrained as a teacher, concludes with the following:

I find that when presented with the facts, the students I teach are quite capable of considering issues such as this, and reaching rational conclusions even if they started with a blind Daily Mail-esque approach. I find it a shame that no mainstream political party accords the electorate the same respect.

His final comment ought to send a shiver down the spine of every UK voter. If you voted in the last election, you probably voted for prohibition. You voted to gift hundreds of billions of pounds to organised crime each year, to undermine the social and economic development of producer countries such as Colombia, Afghanistan as well as transit countries such as Guinea Bissau and Jamaica. You voted to double the amount of acquisitive crime in the UK and to double the prison population with it. Your "X" contributed to misery and degradation for millions of the most marginalised people on earth. Unless we all do something to change it, you will probably vote for prohibition next time too.

In 2003 at a press conference, I asked the then drugs spokesperson at the Home Office, Bob Ainsworth MP, whether the government would support a cost benefit analysis of drug law enforcement. Quick as a flash his reply came back: "Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?" Does that sound like a man ignorant of where that audit trail would lead?

It is the candour of the likes of Critchley and others that exposes the hypocrisy of those failing to speak out and makes prohibition untenable in the long term. As Joseph McNamara, former police chief of Kansas City and San Jose put it: "The drug war cannot stand the light of day. It will collapse as quickly as the Vietnam war, as soon as people find out what's really going on." Tragically and despicably, the government's commitment to populist posturing means that the collapse will come far too late for many.

Julian Critchley: All the experts admit that we should legalise drugs
Thursday, 14 August 2008

Eight years ago, I left my civil service job as director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-Ordination Unit. I went partly because I was sick of having to implement policies that I knew, and my political masters knew, were unsupported by evidence. Yesterday, after a surreal flurry of media requests referring to a blog I wrote that questioned the wisdom of the UK's drug policies, I found myself in the thick of the debate again, and I was sorry to discover that the terms hadn't changed a bit.

I was being interviewed on the BBC World Service, and after I tried to explain why I believe that drugs should be decriminalised, the person representing the other side of the argument pointed out that drugs are terrible, that they destroy lives. Now, I am a deeply boring, undruggy person myself, and I think the world would be a better place without drugs. But I think that we must live in the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. And so my answer was, yes, I know that drugs are terrible. I'm not saying that drugs should be decriminalised because it would be fun if we could all get stoned with impunity. I'm saying that we've tried minimising harm through a draconian legal policy. It is now clear that enforcement and supply-side interventions are largely pointless. They haven't worked. There is evidence that this works.

Unfortunately, evidence is still not a major component in our policy. Take cannabis. When I was in the Anti-Drug Unit, the moves towards making it a class C drug began, and I hoped that our position on drugs was finally moving in a rational direction. But then Gordon Brown ignored his scientific advisers to make it a class B again. It was a decision that pandered to the instincts of the tabloids, and it made no sense whatsoever.

There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalisation would be dramatic. The argument always put forward against this is that there would be a commensurate increase in drug use as a result of legalisation. This, it seems to me, is a bogus point: tobacco is a legal drug, whose use is declining, and precisely because it is legal, its users are far more amenable to Government control, education programmes and taxation than they would be otherwise. Studies suggest that the market is already almost saturated, and anyone who wishes to purchase the drug of their choice anywhere in the UK can already do so. The idea that many people are holding back solely because of a law which they know is already unenforceable is ridiculous.

Ultimately, people will make choices which harm themselves, whether they involve diet, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, sexual activity or pursuit of extreme sports. In all these instances, the Government rightly takes the line that if these activities are to be pursued, society will ensure that those who pursue them have access to accurate information about the risks; can access assistance to change their harmful habits should they so wish; are protected by a legal standards regime; are taxed accordingly; and – crucially – do not harm other people. Only in the field of drugs does the Government take a different line.

The case is overwhelming. But I fear that policy will not catch up with the facts any time soon. It would take a mature society to accept that some individuals may hurt, or even kill themselves, as a result of a policy change, even if the evidence suggested that fewer people died or were harmed as a result. It would take a brave government to face down the tabloid fury in the face of anecdotes about middle-class children who bought drugs legally and came to grief, and this is not a brave government.

I think what was truly depressing about my time in the civil service was that the professionals I met from every sector held the same view: the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those people were forced to repeat the mantra that the Government would be "tough on drugs", even though they all knew that the policy was causing harm.

I recall a conversation I had with a Number 10 policy advisor about a series of announcements in which we were to emphasise the shift of resources to treatment and highlight successes in prevention and education. She asked me whether we couldn't arrange for "a drugs bust in Brighton" at the same time, or "a boat speeding down the Thames to catch smugglers". For that advisor, what worked mattered considerably less than what would play well in the right-wing press. The tragedy of our drugs policy is that it is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by evidence.

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