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The Versus Debate - The Night Drug Policy Went Mainstream

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Did you see the debate? A debate with a host of celebrities: Russell Brand, Sir Richard Branson; world leaders, and eminent opinion formers. Oh, and Peter Hitchens was in attendance. A debate of such magnitude would surely not creep under the radar? Especially given the gravitas of the contested subject?

Under the heading of 'The War on Drugs Has Failed' - and hosted by Intelligence Squared, the debate is a must watch for anyone remotely interested in societal issues. Luckily, the full video will be available to view soon. The drugs debate has never been given such a platform, and it just goes to show how ripe the discussion now is.

A poll dovetailed the whole event, and the end results: 95% of the web vote, and 64.5% of the auditorium were in favour of reform. But there was some interesting subtext to the debate.

The panel were divided into for and against reform, and yet there was a large amount of common ground between the two sides. For example, it was almost unilaterally agreed upon that incarceration for drug users was no longer just. This in itself is a heartening step forward. Seemingly, there was also a popular consensus - from both sides - that cannabis really has no place in the 'war on drugs'. The debate as a whole was centred around hard drugs.

There was also some comedic value to the evening with Peter Hitchens' presence evoking strained reaction from all sides of the panel and auditorium. Russell Brand and Hitchens tussled over hats of all things, with Brand devaluing the Mail on Sunday and alluding to its irrelevance. Wikileaks' Julian Assange then took umbrage at Hitchens being given the final say to the evening; Assange groaned, "I can't believe you were going to give that tw*t the last word".

Leading the charge on the opposition to reform, former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, gave an impressive performance and hounded Senior Policy Analyst, Steve Rolles, from Transform Drug Policy Foundation. In A Few Good Men type scenario, Rolles was berated into a corner by Spitzer, and although Rolles didn't shout "you can't handle the truth", he firmly kept his cool and managed to hold his own against the Spitzer's probing; Steve Rolles even managed to replace the onus whilst dispelling ad hominems and reform myths. However, there is belief that Eliot Spitzer was playing devil's advocate owing to the not so subtle fact that he has publicly supported marijuana reforms. On HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" - Spitzer said:

"To spend prosecutorial resources on pot is ridiculous...I'd be in favour of legalised pot. Legalising pot is the right way to go."

Spitzer's colleague in the maintenance of the 'war on drugs' was former US Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey. Following the theme, McCaffrey is also on public record as saying, "Knock yourself out" to marijuana growers - and that with regards to cannabis, he "really doesn't care". It's fair to see that even the most staunches of positions can no longer argue a case for the prohibition of cannabis and the punitive measures for possession.

Other speakers in favour of reform included:

Former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, author of McMafia, Misha Glenny; Columbian President, Juan Manuel Santos, journalist, Johann Hari, and leading human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC.

Those who support punitive policies were:

Professor Neil McKeganey, Lord Ian Blair; author, Theodore Dalrymple, and Antonio Maria Costa who was Director General of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Unification of opinion was rife over the premise of punishing drug users. The panel mostly advocated health based approaches and help for those with addiction over punitive. Incarcerating users was not considered humane or cost effective. Russell Brand also made the pertinent case for a distinction between problem drug use and casual use; he also said that criminalising any behaviour simply ostracises the vulnerable.

Whatever your stance on the drugs debate, it can be agreed that it's now time we had one. The UK and US governments are embarrassingly behind in the dialogue, and successive policy makers refuse to even engage with the issue; they are increasingly out of touch. It's easy to see that drug policy reform is now mainstream.

The full video of the debate will be available soon.