As the debate on the legalisation of drugs flares up once more we consider whether a more interventionist approach is advisableby Josh Lowe / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Peter Hitchens is vehemently opposed to the legalisation of drugs © Yui Mok/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Last week, I went to a debate about drug policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I was struck by how “stock” everything felt. The crowd, dressed in bronze jewellery, earthy fabrics and woolly hoodies, chattered before the start about decriminalisation, evidence-based intervention and, one suspected, recent chemically aided nights out. The panel, an all-star line up (in drug policy terms), ran the gamut of requisite opinions. At one end of the spectrum was crossbench peer and decriminalisation advocate Baroness Meacher. At the other, one-man moral panic Peter Hitchens. The evening left me wondering how the reformist movement might focus on step-by-step change, rather than hurling itself against the sneering cliff-face of good old British conservatism.
As the panel duked it out on the motion “The war on drugs has failed, we would legalise drugs,” there were plenty of standout moments. Proposing the motion Danny Kushlick, founder of reformist drugs think tank Transform, gave a potted history of international narcotics policy. This ran from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the first treaty on drugs to contain the word “evil” in the final document, to the 2008 World Drug Report, in which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledged that services devoted to public health were under resourced compared to those devoted to public security. Hitchens in particular acted his villain’s role well for the opposition. When the proposition argued that morality is not “carved on stone tablets”, the Mail on Sunday columnist muttered darkly “yes it is”.
Throughout, I couldn’t help feeling that we weren’t getting anywhere. The debate, emotionally and morally charged on the pro-criminalisation side, stat-heavy and somewhat dry on the other, was a microcosm of English and Welsh action on this issue. Just over a year ago we saw it writ large, when an optimistic Nick Clegg threw his weight behind the Home Affairs Select Committee’s call for a royal commission to investigate legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. He was quickly shot down by David Cameron.
Perhaps it is time for those in favour of evidence-based drugs policy to change tack. Options exist which are humane and considered, but do not require major changes to the law. Those who weren’t already on the sherry in…