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BBC Free Speech - Drugs

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As a drug policy pedant, it was with great interest that I noted BBC Three's Free Speech were to address the drugs debate - the discourse had raged on Free Speech's social media and blogs for a few weeks prior to the show.

Triggered by Russell Brand's now infamous evidence session to the Home Affairs Select Committee where he eloquently argued the case for compassion & health based approaches instead punitive, Free Speech took the baton on their 16th May screening which can now be seen on iplayer.

For those of us in drug policy, we usually hold trepidations over the initial premise of any debate; based upon the question 'should all drugs be legalised' - I was more than a little apprehensive. The 'L' word is both incorrect when used in accordance with the Misuse of Drugs Act, but moreover, 'legalisation' tends to polarise the discussion.

With a keen eye for this specific Free Speech debate, I was interested to see where the younger voters' stance was on the issue, and to a degree, the discourse on the show was more nuanced and lucid than you'd get with the older demographic of so called 'Middle England'.

We'll overlook any irony of a drugs debate hosted live from one of Bristol's biggest nightclubs - with the "whiff on beer in the air" - and move onto addressing the debate's content.

Panellists included:

Presenter, Cherry Healey
Comedian, Kojo
UKIP's Alexandra Swann
And founder of SBTV, Jamal Edwards

Cherry Healey began by reiterating Russell Brand's call for a distinction between problematic drug users and casual use:

"This is a terrifying subject to speak openly about. I do agree with Russell that not everyone that takes drugs turns into an addict and a menace to society. Addiction is complicated and reliant on so many other factors.

"We, as a society, need to act compassionately to those who are severely affected by drugs."

Kojo made a case from a domestic point of view:

"Coming from Hackney, my issue is with the dealers. If the government take ownership of the situation, they can control it."

Host, Jake Humphrey, pushed for an answer,

"So you're saying legalise [regulate] cannabis?"

Kojo cordially replied,

"Cannabis yes, but I'm not sure about other drugs." This response was met with applause.

Jake Humphrey then went on to ask Jamal Edwards:

"Cigarettes & alcohol are legal, kill thousands of people each year, so how will this help?"

This is where I have to inject some personal pedantry: alcohol & tobacco are not 'legal' - they are simply not controlled within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - hence there is little to no state regulation. Only in recent months have we begun to see the implementation of controls such as minimum pricing. One of the areas drug policy reformers look to make a difference is that of marketing. The alcohol industry promotes usage to an unhealthy degree, and there is a crossfire in our promotion that is fired towards children as a result. The Path Ways to Problems report also alludes to the failure of basic regulatory emplacements.

Jamal Edwards replied with yet more reform advocacy:

"The thing that I don't agree with is being put in prison for having a spliff - it's ruined their life, hinders travel, and getting a job."

Alexandra Swann, a UKIP convert from Conservatives, straddled both sides of the debate,

"Russell Brand is right to say that addiction is an illness and not a crime. You need to protect educate and rehabilitate. Putting people with addictions in prison doesn't help them, doesn't help society, and it costs the tax payer lots of money; but dealers should have tougher sentences."

Miss Swann continued,

"Just because the war on drugs isn't working, doesn't mean to say we need to embrace the enemy. To suggest a blanket ban or legalisation is wrong; I think there are arguments for legalisation such as cannabis because you can regulate. But no one wants a situation where you can walk into a newsagents and buy crack, if things were available, people might try them."

-- A straw-man argument is employed; there will never be a conceivable scenario under reform where hard substances will be integrated or sold in such a free-market. Transform's BluePrint for Regulation is perhaps the best document that gives the options on a 5 tier programme of drug controls. It is also unhelpful to deal with drugs discussion based on the 'war on drugs' paradigm; conceptual ideologies do little to help with genuine legislative efforts.

Jake Humphrey went on to use Singapore as an example of how prohibitions have worked. However, what he didn't mention about Singapore's definitive 'zero tolerance' ethos is that of capital punishment. Singapore's death penalty for drug related crime is perhaps not the best example to use as a yardstick of stricter policies.

The Free Speech debate wrapped up with two tales of bereavement and how this was the catalyst of a dependence cycle. Emotive tales from those who have lost loved ones really does bring home the point that addiction is symptomatic of life's developments, and how punitive measures may well not be the most appropriate in controlling actions. The discourse came full circle, and the notion of compassion to those who suffer with addiction through their quest for escapism was a pertinent end to the debate.

I was also interested in an untold story of the night's proceedings; I had contact with an audience member, Clark French - a 26 year old man who is diagnosed with Relapsing and Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. Clark was disappointed that he didn't get to speak on the show as he was enthusiastic to share his own tale of how he has found an effective and comparably safer treatment in cannabis. Like many thousands of M.S sufferers, Clark has found cannabinoids have improved his well-being exponentially. He said:

"It's all well and good talking about harms and what prohibition does, but as said on the programme, we have to stop stigmatising and tarring everyone with the same brush of 'addict'. What about the positives?"

Clark continued,

"Just as the majority of the population can enjoy a drink without experiencing any problematic behaviour or health problems, the same can be said for cannabis.

"I would have liked to asked the panel, and the audience, what they thought of our government; they grant a license to a pharmaceutical company for growing cannabis, and yet my door can be kicked down at any given opportunity, and I face up to 14 years in prison owing to my titration with the same composite medication. Is that fair?"

Clark's effusive example highlights the trawler net of current policies. We tailor legislation so as to protect the vulnerable, and yet the paradoxical effect of prohibition places the most vulnerable in harm's way. BBC Free Speech amply conveyed this point, and demonstrated how the younger voter is seemingly handling the drugs debate better than most. It may fall to the next evolution of MPs and opinion formers to grasp the nettle of drug policy.