THE BLOG
23/09/2015 05:43 BST | Updated 22/09/2016 06:12 BST

Pigs Aside, Cameron's Drug Policy Hypocrisy Is One of the Biggest Lord Ashcroft Revelations

It is the hypocrisy of this policy - where our Prime Minister, and other politicians, have committed the same actions as the tens of thousands of people we criminalise every year - that should drive the basis for reform. The saddest thing is that Cameron knows this.

While much of the media obsessed over 'pig gate', excerpts from Lord Ashcroft's upcoming book on David Cameron have once again put the spotlight on our Prime Minister's drug law hypocrisy, and his troubling rejection of his past beliefs on the need for reform.

The revelation that Prime Minister David Cameron had indulged in taking drugs in the past is certainly nothing new. When asked in a 2005 interview about whether he had previously used cannabis he responded that he 'had a normal university experience'. Whilst this statement is certainly ambiguous, what is true is that drug consumption is not an unusual experience amongst young people and young adults. However, for many of those who consume cannabis or other drugs, their experiences diverge markedly from that of the Prime Minister.

It is unlikely, for example, that David Cameron as an Oxford student would have even thought about the possibility of being stopped and searched for drugs - indeed, he is more like to have thought that pigs might fly before that happens. Even commentators yesterday were referring to the Prime Minister's 'antics' (clearly a euphemism for drug taking and other things) as 'high jinks', as one Newsnight commentator put it, whilst Number 10 stated it was all part of 'youthful excesses'.

Unfortunately, for many young people they are unable to talk about 'antics' and 'high jinks.' Instead, for some it is about criminal records that affect their education, their employment opportunities and even the ability to travel to countries like the United States. It is this that shows the disconnect between the experience of young people from affluent backgrounds who use drugs recreationally compared to those living in areas of deprivation and who are black or Asian who also use drugs recreationally. It is the colour of your skin or your economic status that is likely to determine whether you end up with a criminal record for drug possession, not simply the fact you use drugs.

It is the hypocrisy of this policy - where our Prime Minister, and other politicians, have committed the same actions as the tens of thousands of people we criminalise every year - that should drive the basis for reform. The saddest thing is that Cameron knows this. Indeed, in the early 2000s he was not only in favour of drug policy reform, but had deep-seated views on the urgent need for it.

As a backbench MP Cameron was a member of the Home Affairs Committee that carried out a 2002 enquiry into UK drugs laws, whose recommendations included diamorphine prescribing for heroin users, initiating pilot drug consumption rooms to reduce health risks and littering, and the need for the United Nations to consider alternative approaches to prohibition including regulation and decriminalisation. In a speech to Parliament later that year Cameron emphasised his support for the report, going on to talk about the high numbers of heroin users in the UK, and highlighting that 3,500 people had died from drugs in the previous year (a 20% increase on the previous decade), that 300,000 people were Hepatitis C positive and that a third were likely to die prematurely. In his speech he said:

"I feel extremely strongly about this subject and desperately want to see a reduction in drug abuse and better paths to enable people to get out of it. If one takes a slightly progressive - or, as I like to think of it, thoughtful - view, one can sometimes be accused of being soft. I reject that utterly... I hope that the government will be brave. We are seeing some progress, although they are, I am afraid, sometimes fond of using tough language on subjects such as crime and asylum. This is not a time for tough language; they must just get it right."

All of this, though, was prior to him becoming leader of the Conservative Party. According to the allegations pouring out now, this dramatic policy U-turn was made for the sake of political expediency.

Move forward 13 years and there are still high numbers of heroin and crack cocaine users in the UK, whilst we are starting to see (albeit in small numbers) a worrying increase in the injecting of new substances such as so called "legal highs". More alarmingly, latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that the number of drug-related deaths are now the highest since records began (Cameron's number of 3,500 in 2001 seems to be incorrect. Rather, it was 3,093 compared to 3,346 in 2014).

In respect of Hepatitis C the situation is critical; 60% of people who inject drugs are estimated to be infected yet only 3% of them are in treatment - a treatment that can cure the condition. It is hard to think of another condition in the UK where so many of those severely impacted fail to gain access to potentially lifesaving medications.

Even more shocking is not only Cameron's volte-face, but that he claims the government's drug policy is working because drug use is falling. This mantra is based on two factors. One is the fall in the number of young people consuming cannabis which occurred over a five year period prior to 2009 and which have since stabilised. The other is the alleged fall in the number of heroin and crack users which is measured by the number of people presenting to treatment and fails to consider the fact that treatment providers are now working in a policy environment dominated by a deeply troubling abstinence-based recovery agenda, a policy driven by the Conservatives since they came into power in 2010.

When drug-related deaths are at an all-time high, when we are needlessly criminalising tens of thousands of people every year, and when more and more damage is being done globally as a result of the so-called 'War on Drugs', it is very clear that the current approach - one based on prohibitionist policies - does not work, despite whatever Cameron may claim now.

The Prime Minister's 2002 insights into, and proposed solutions for what is an incredibly complex issue showed a willingness to be bold in the face of ingrained drug policy failure. It is an incredibly sad indictment of the blindness political power brings when confronting this issue, and that politicians feel the need to resort to pandering at the expense of solid, evidence-based policy.

Cameron should revisit his 2002 speech, not only for himself, but for the sake of the people being damaged daily by his government's failing drug laws.