Last November, Norman Baker MP, left his office in Government with a bang. In his role as Minister of State for the Home Office, he oversaw the development of the Coalition Government's international comparators study on drug policy. While the publication fell very short of the Royal Commission recommended by the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, it produced sensible insights. Among them, the report says: 'We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country's enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country'. For those of us working towards drug policy reform, this was no surprise.
In 2006, the Beckley Foundation's Global Cannabis Commission, which I convened to evaluate existing policies and identify alternatives, made the same observations. The report produced by the Commission, Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, highlighted the futility of criminalising drug users and recommended moving towards decriminalisation and a regulated market for cannabis. Some countries have already progressed in this direction, with marked savings in law enforcement and improved health outcomes.
The Coalition Government's report on international drug policy also included policy recommendations in this sense, except that they did not make the final cut. In fact, they were scrapped by Home Secretary, Theresa May. After months of political tug-of-war, Norman Baker quit the Home Office. In his own words, working with May had been like 'walking through mud'.
With the recent electoral win of the Conservative Party, and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, drug policy has changed hands. From the Minister of State for Crime Prevention to the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice. From the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives*. From Lynne Featherstone to Mike Penning.
Penning's credentials seem encouraging at first glance. As Shadow Minister of Health, he convincingly campaigned for better, targeted and smarter drug regulation. In parliamentary debates, he eloquently explained how pricing can be used as a tool to encourage moderation, how the black market represents millions in lost tax revenue, how targeted penalties could deter adults from buying drugs for minors and how product controls increase health outcomes.
Like most Brits, Minister Penning enjoys the occasional pint.
The Minister has even candidly recognised that the negative effects of his own personal drug use had led him to reduce his intake for health reasons. As it is the case with most drug users, he seems able to reasonably manage and adapt his consumption patterns to new reliable information. And this regardless of the fact that his drug of choice is consistently singled out as one of the most harmful and addictive psychoactive substances: alcohol.
His views on licit drugs are in sharp contrast with his perspective on other drugs. For instance, he strongly rebuked Chief Constable Mike Barton's call for the strict regulation of illegal drugs. Instead, he suggested doing 'everything we can to crack down on [them]'. But, isn't this tough-on-drugs approach what the UK, and so many other countries, have tried for over 40 years? And with what results?
Hundreds of thousands in Britain have been arrested/criminalised for possessing small amounts of drugs, favouring stigma and greatly affecting their life chances. Patients have been unable to obtain relief from debilitating conditions for which therapies involving controlled drugs hold great promise, and clinical research has been obstructed. Opiate-related deaths are close to the highest levels observed since comparable records began. Developing countries have been destabilised, cornered by drug trafficking organisations sustained by the huge profits of the black market. And the list goes on and on.
Towards the end of the 1980s, realising the transmission of bloodborne diseases among injecting drug users reached epidemic proportions, Margaret Thatcher's government took a bold step. After listening to the advice of her scientific advisers, the UK became a pioneering country in the development of needle exchange programmes, which reduced infections and brought international attention to effective harm reduction strategies. In the run-up to the 2016 UNGASS on Drugs, the current Conservative government, and Minister Penning in particular, could show similar forward-thinking and pragmatism by supporting the global call to objectively evaluate outdated drug policies.
If not from us, take if from a certain up and coming Conservative MP, David Cameron, in 2005: 'Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.'
It is time for new thinking.
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