Drug policy must be an election issue

It seems that I may have been unfair on Evan Harris and perhaps less so on Chris Huhne about the inferences in their questions to the government on Tuesday in the House of Commons about the prohibition of Mephedrone and similar substances. That Evan in particular may have been playing a more sophisticated game than I gave him credit for by trying to trip the government up over whether they accept the scientific advice of the advisors they have appointed. Such scientific advice may, of course, be meant to include the advice from David Nutt last year that the classification system was not fit for purpose and needed urgent review based on proper scientific evidence of the harms done by particular substances. And that Chris may have been using his question to try and tempt out of the government an acknowledgement that perhaps the fiasco surrounding Mephedrone and the advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs might hint at alternative solutions such as the "Class D" system Professor Nutt highlighted had been tried in New Zealand. So, to the extent that I may have misinterpreted Evan’s and Chris’s intentions in the house on Tuesday, I apologise.

Liberal Democrat policy

However, after an all too brief Twitter conversation with Evan on Thursday evening, a difference of opinion remains between us, both about approach and about current party policy. Now, I should stress that I cannot find the copy I thought I had of our now rather old (pre-2005) explanatory note on Lib Dem policy on drugs. However I do I am sure accurately recall several things from it:

  • we want to end the use of prison as a response to possession and use of all drugs, unless it can be linked specifically to other criminal activities, such as is often the case property crime in acquiring the drugs or if the taking of those drugs has led to violence and such like.
  • we want a Royal Commission to look at alternative ways forward for all drugs, including the legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco.]
  • we would decriminalise the possession and "social supply" of cannabis – meaning, presumably, that local small scale growers could supply a small network of their friends an acquaintances.

I seem to recall that there were other ideas, but these are the ones I can recall, so do please correct me if you actually have a copy of the document to hand.

More recently, Margaret Godden and I steered a motion through last autumn’s South Central Region Liberal Democrats’ conference in Romsey calling on the party to take a fresh look at our drugs policy in the light of the apparent successes reported in places like Portugal where decriminalisation of possession and use of all drugs has led to a significant reduction in harms, and in crime, and, significantly also a substantial reduction in drugs use as a whole. The motion also stated that we believed the "war on drugs" was being lost and was creating more dangers and harm than it solved. Whilst I acknowledge that there were one or two principled counter-opinions, this was passed with, I think, only two votes in the hall against it.

Both Evan and Chris, as Science and Home Office spokesmen, together with Mark Oaten as former Home Office spokesman and Sandra Gidley as Health spokeswoman are South Central region MPs. And whilst policy passed at the regional level does not commit them to anything, they ought at least to be promoting the ideas promulgated within their reason into parliamentary tactics when dealing with subjects their region has expressed a concern about in my opinion. It should be noted that our wording in the Romsey motion was specifically intended to NOT commit the party to any major change before a general election. Nonetheless it did set a clear "direction of travel" and it certainly did not anticipate the sudden emergence of not just one "panic", the current Mephedrone one, but also the earlier one against synthetic cannabinoids in the form of the "Spice" ban at Christmas time.

Implementing party policy

Now, back to my disagreement with Evan in our Twitter conversation on Thursday. It was pretty clear that Evan believes that our policy means that we support the recommendations of the Advisory Council come what may. However it seems clear to me that doing so does contradict our agreed party policy. If you classify something class B, for instance, as has been suggested for Mephedrone, you are making it a criminal offence punishable with up to five years imprisonment, merely for possession. This does run counter to our party policy of not using prison as a response to possession and use. We cannot say that we support a system whose structure of penalties goes against party policy. It may be okay to say we support the ACMD’s suggestion that Mephedrone should be treated on a part with cannabis and amphetamines but not if doing so means that the penalties break our party policy.

On top of that, as I write, I’ve just seen a news report that yet another member of the Advisory Council has resigned today. This time Eric Carlin has resigned saying that the ACMD itself were put under pressure to focus on criminalisation rather than other possible responses, and it has emerged that the Home Secretary demanded a briefing from ACMD before they were ready to publish their report.

Whilst I gather the report has now been published, it was not public on Monday when Alan Johnson announced that it recommended a ban, nor when Evan and Chris asked their questions on Tuesday. My understanding, from rumour, however, is that the report does not actually address the bio-medical harms of these drugs; rather that it compares the reported effects, matches them up with similar substances already on the schedule that have similar effects (i.e. amphetamines) and simply recommends it should be treated the same. What they have not done is to work out scientifically (the raison d’être of the council) whether those effects – most of which are the effects that users seek rather than nasty side-effects – are achieved by a chemical that is relatively more or relatively less harmful than the substances it will be classified with.

This last is significant, since it gives the lie to the idea that the Misuse of Drugs Act system is being used to deal with "harm", but rather that, as many people have suspected for a long time, that it is being used to control "effects", "feelings"; the old idea that it is designed to stop people having whatever they call "fun" and no more.

So to be clear, even under our current policy, which whilst being far better than the other parties’ policy on drugs, it would not be right to support prohibition that is accompanied by imprisonment for possession or use. And under Evan’s particular remit, of listening to the scientists and accepting their expertise, Eric Carlin’s revelations today suggest that we should not be supporting it, period, until they have been allowed to investigate the bio-medical effects rather than the reported effects, because we are not being advised by scientists free to express their opinion on the scientific evidence that Evan so values.

An election issue

Now, in the course of the discussions on this (precious few it has to be said) in Lib Dem circles, it has come out that some people believe we cannot take a contrary line in this particular case, because we are close to an election, the tabloid editors have whipped up a moral panic that appears to be out of all proportion either to the evidence of harm itself or to the number of people whose injury and death have actually been shown to have been caused by Mephedrone – i.e. none. It is noticeable that seemingly ambulance chasing journalists are only too gleeful to be reporting yet another case of a tragedy linked to the use of Mephedrone, every one that I have seen has had other possible causes, such as multi-substance use or existing medical conditions, and we never actually get to hear the results of post mortem toxicology reports and so on. No doubt this is because, inconveniently, it doesn’t actually conclude that Mephedrone is to blame, which would spoil their nicely fired up and cynical moral panic.

I believe this is fundamentally wrong. Now is exactly the time to be making a fuss and taking the contrary line. We often complain that for most of every four years nobody listens to what the Lib Dems say, but that elections the most obscure bits of policy are sometimes trotted out to attack us. Since we haven’t actually updated our policy since the last General Election, no doubt someone in each of the other parties will be wheeling out the same document I mention above to use to attack us. Shamefully, in 2005, when it was used so to attack us, I recall an interview with the then Home Office spokesman Mark Oaten in which he dodged the issue completely – dismissing it as one of those policies made by the unrepresentative cranks (inferred) at a party conference somewhere and not deemed worthy of inclusion in our manifesto, so it was moot. And no doubt, unless we do something now, the same will happen this time.

But it is precisely because this moral panic has been stirred up, some would say perhaps a little too conspiratorially deliberately, in the run up to an election that we need to go on the front foot now. Forget the science for a minute. We are, or are supposed to be, liberals. A very fundamental tenet of liberalism as expressed by John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty" (a book, need I remind Chris Huhne and party leader Nick Clegg, they claimed was their most important influence and favourite political book during their campaigns for the party leadership) is the so called "harm principle". This states, roughly paraphrased, that government has no legitimate business in enacting things to stop us harming ourselves, that its only role is to see to it that potential harm caused to other people by our individual decisions and actions are prevented or minimised.

If Nick Clegg really believes, as he said in his acceptance speech on becoming leader that there was a great inherently liberal majority in Britain whose real views are not well represented by the Labservatives, then surely to goodness now, in an election campaign, in the middle of a moral panic, in the face of a Labservative determination to make criminals out of a whole new raft of young people, now, is the time to shout that principle and how it might be achieved in practice in a Lib Dem government from the rooftops!

Now, some would say that it’s all a bit of a side issue, drugs, isn’t it, so why bother going to the barricades on it at such a sensitive time. Well here’s why I feel so strongly about the issue, all of which are things that we can explain, and that we can use to counter, publicly and forcefully, the inevitable attacks from opponents if we do take the issue to the people.

We know that prohibition itself causes great harm:

  • It drives the trade in substances into the hands of criminals across the world. Prices rise and quality falls, as these people don’t really care whether their customers have a good time or keel over and die, and are more than happy to sell drugs that might be relatively harmless on their own mixed with substances that are lethal, to make them go further and given them more profit.
  • Neither do they care whether they sell to children – their only imperative is to offload a supply that has an increasing likelihood of landing them with a hefty prison sentence if they are caught with it, making their money and getting on with the next time.
  • Criminalisation means that those who may be tempted to try some of these drugs cannot get reliable information – the man in the white BMW is hardly handing out inserts like you get in packets of cough sweets warning people of the doses, contraindications and dangers of combining them with other substances or activities.
  • Many deaths, including the famous case that brought Ecstasy to the public attention in the UK of Leah Betts, are actually caused because users were ignorant of what they should do or not do on the drug. In her case, the "street wisdom" she had received was that it dehydrated you and you needed to drink plenty of water – which she duly did and damaged her brain through salt dilution. Nothing, it would appear, about the drug itself killed her. Ignorance, caused by prohibition, did.
  • And for drugs which can lead to addiction, people are much less likely to acknowledge they have a problem and try and get help, because in doing so they brand themselves a criminal. Furthermore, since the supply and availability is so variable, instead of being able to manage their addiction while they otherwise go about a normal life – like most of us do several times a day with our caffeine fix or nicotine fix without major hassle, the heroin addict often ends up dropping out entirely so he can spend all his time "doing the business" of looking for his next fix.
  • The criminal gangs at various levels of the drug trade engage in turf wars amongst themselves which wreaks more havoc on our cities in particular, tempts enforcement officers into corruption, including, in one case I have been told about by a former civilian police worker where to keep the predominant local gang quiet, they tipped them off about a lone competitor on their patch so they could come and execute him.

Imoral legislation

Knowing all this, our legislators continue to pursue a system of attempted control that causes more harm than the problem it is trying to solve. Prohibition KILLS. Those who support it knowing all this are complicit in these additional harms and deaths. Those who support it, or support politicians advocating it, without understanding these issues need educating. Because as we have seen over the past few weeks of the Mephedrone panic, parents, teachers, and friends really seem to believe that taking the hard line of prohibition actually makes the world safer for their loved ones, when in fact it makes it immeasurably more dangerous.

There can be few areas of social problems in which the legislative response is so much more harmful than the problem. If we accept that our politicians are there partly to try to keep us from harm, it is utterly immoral that they should knowingly create situations in which the harm, including risk of death, is intensified. Indeed, they can have no moral or philosophical justification for doing so and it is repugnant that they even think that they have.

So, for all these reasons, I say that it is absolutely essential that someone stands against the sort of reactionary, populist, knee-jerk response we have seen on Mephedrone, that is the job of liberals and therefore the Liberal Democrats in parliament and on the stump, and the time to do so is precisely when the spotlight of publicity and the lens of scrutiny is on politicians the most, election time. There can be nothing more important than when our legislators knowingly take positions that lead to more damage, because it is not within the powers we give them as an electorate whom they represent to do so.

Despite all the other issues on which I think governments cause more harm than good, there can be none more egregious than that they deliberately and knowingly put people in greater risk in the name of "protecting them".

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