“Whatever the options on the table, whatever the decision to be made, the same questions must be asked: will it put more power in people’s hands? And will it equip Britain for long-term success?”
(David Cameron and Nick Clegg, UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, 3rd August 2010)
Apart from drug policy, everything seems to be up for discussion and possible revision by the UK’s new Coalition government. This includes a range of services for young people such as Connexions, bizarrely criticised by the Government for focusing too much on those with greatest needs, the “N.E.E.T.s”, young people who are not in employment, education or training at the expense of the needs of more ‘mainstream’ teenagers (BBC News, 4th August 2010). It is difficult to see how maintaining the embedded approach by politicians to drug policy, ignoring the reality that it is failing a generation of young people, can be useful. In a rational world the argument proposed by Sebastian Saville in this week’s ‘Observer’ that we need to “move from dogma to science in the way we manage drug use” would hardly be regarded as radical, despite there being a range of opinions about what policy should eventually look like and how necessary changes might be introduced.
Following others, Sir Ian Gilmore, former President of the Royal College of Physicians, has this week made a useful contribution to the discussion, arguing that our current approach with its focus on criminalising people rather than dealing with drugs as a health issue has led to both increased crime and health problems. However, the Coalition’s knee-jerk response, saying they don’t agree, has once more highlighted politicians’ fears and insecurities about exploring new options in drug control policy. The media are negligent in their coverage also; for example, the BBC this morning reported uncritically that “anti-drugs” campaigners criticised Sir Ian’s comments. Who are these “anti-drugs” people? What does “anti-drugs” mean? Is Sir Ian Gilmore “pro-drugs” then? In my own experience, earlier this year I was asked in a BBC interview whether I felt “vindicated” in resigning from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because two young men in Scunthorpe who had died, reportedly with a connection to the use of Mephedrone which was then legal, had not in fact taken the drug. I thought it was an inappropriate question. How could one feel vindicated when two lives have been cut short and when two families and many friends are mourning? Whether legal (alcohol) or illegal drugs had caused this tragedy, two young people were failed and are tragically no longer with us.
I have to say that I find the hypocrisy of the UK Liberal Democrats on the drugs issue to be particularly astonishing. For example, consider the current Deputy Prime Minister’s comments in 2007:
“The present debate on classification of drugs is nonsense, with politicians second guessing science and evidence…If you’re interested in reducing harm, you need to revisit the spectrum of drugs, both legal and illegal and categorise them according to the evidence.”
(Nick Clegg, 2007)
Of course politicians can always find ways to explain their revisionism: For example:
“I did lots of things before I came into politics which I shouldn’t have done. We all did”.
(David Cameron, 2005)
Lucky for David Cameron that he was born into privilege. For his youthful experimentation, he was neither arrested, nor excluded from school, nor dragged into the circle of harms, including but not limited to addiction, that are made both more likely and more extreme for the most socially disadvantaged people in our communities. Where illegal drug use is concerned, as well as the majority of UK property crimes being related to people’s needs to ‘feed’ a drug habit, we have countless horrific examples such as the murders of three sex workers in Bradford this year and five in Ipswich in 2006 which were directly connected to their need to work the streets to raise the cash for heroin and crack.
But it seems to me that support to intervene early with evidence-based initiatives to prevent and reduce problematic drug use remains a low political priority. I have previously criticised the consensus reached by Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to abandon the last Government’s commitment to make drugs education compulsory in schools. It’s not all that it is needed but it could be a vital component which would help improve the quality and range of drugs education provision in schools. Young people themselves consistently ask for more and better drugs education, even where they have already begun experimenting with drugs. Although a new survey by the charity YouthNet found worrying levels of drug use among young people, for example, with one in four reporting cocaine use, they also found that young people are crying out for more reliable and readily available information about drugs.
More than anything, our political leaders need to be brave and properly open up the drugs policy discussion to all options. This will require finding more useful language: let’s dump “pro” and “anti” drugs, “prohibitionist” and “legaliser”. Everyone knows that establishing appropriate regulation of drug use has to be a part of any drug strategy. Criminal justice measures should be used to contribute to preventing and reducing health and social harms but the focus should be on drug use as primarily a public health issue. Transform’s ‘Blueprint’ report, www.tdpf.org.uk/Transform_Drugs_Blueprint.pdf, explores the potential for introducing a new, improved regulatory framework. I don’t agree with all the conclusions drawn but nor do I disagree with everything. Of course it includes assumptions, positions based on political beliefs and some inconsistencies and gaps, such as what to do with those, particularly young people who might choose not to go along with their suggested new regulatory framework. However, it is exceptionally useful in highlighting some new options that the new Coalition Government could at least put on the table. As Professor Gilmore put it this week,
“There are really strong arguments to look again.”
(Professor Ian Gilmore, August 2010)