UK Drug Laws: An Addiction to Hypocrisy
Crime reporter Duncan Campbell sets out what the various political parties are promising on drugs for the next Parliament – but puts the likelihood of reform at close to zero.
Lenny Bruce. Remember him? Never heard of him? He was one of the greatest and bravest comedians of the last century who was hounded to his death in 1966 by the police and the courts over his drug use.
Not long before he died he suggested that cannabis would soon be legal in the United States “because the many law students who now smoke pot will someday become congressmen and legalise it in order to protect themselves”.
It didn’t quite happen like that.
But, Lenny might be gratified to know that, in 2019, there are now 11 US states in which the use of cannabis is legal. But what about the UK?
Three generations of British students have grown up since the 1960s and many of those now in Parliament have at least “experimented with” – the favoured words for a politician’s drug use, God forbid “enjoyed” – cannabis. But we are still far behind those US states and Canada and many of our European neighbours in attitudes towards prohibition.
Yet, disputes over drug supply are seen as the prime cause in the knife crime afflicting our inner cities. 12% of those in our overcrowded jails are serving time because of drug offences and children as young as 10 are being used as couriers to dodge the police.
Will next month’s General Election change anything for any of them?
The Green Party and Liberal Democrats have been the most outspoken and radical when it comes to drug policy.
The Greens have said they intend to “end the war on drugs, which has trapped hundreds of thousands of people into lives of crime and treat drug addiction as a health condition, not a crime”. In its manifesto, the party cites Portugal as an example to be followed and state that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 should be repealed and a pardon granted for anyone previously convicted of possession or small-scale supply of drugs. The Greens would make cannabis, labelled according to laboratory-tested strength, available to adults.
The Liberal Democrats favour the legalisation of cannabis, which they claim could bring £1.5 billion in duty and savings through sales in licensed shops to over-18s. Those figures, of course, like all the other figures tossed around by all parties at election time, are as close to reality as the old claims made by prosecuting counsel in court cases back in the 1960s as to the value of what the police or Customs and Excise had seized.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party would seek the immediate devolution of drug laws “to allow us to better tackle the public health emergency we face”. Distinct from legalisation, it backs decriminalisation.
The Labour Party, probably aware that such a position would prompt a furious Gone To Pot! headline in the Sun, has tiptoed around the issue saying in its manifesto that “a Labour Government will establish a Royal Commission to develop a public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation”.
Plaid Cymru also favour a commission, albeit not a royal one.
Over the years, members of the Conservative Party have – somewhat reluctantly – shared their experiences with drugs. “I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose,” said Boris Johnson back in 2005. “In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.” Yes, yes, Boris. A couple of years later, in a GQ interview, he admitted trying cocaine and cannabis at university, saying it “achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever”. More’s the pity.
During this year’s Tory leadership campaign, Michael Gove told the Daily Mail that he “took drugs on several occasions at social events more than 20 years ago. At the time I was a young journalist. It was a mistake. I look back and I think, I wish I hadn’t done that”. Whether he meant being a young journalist or taking drugs was “a mistake” is not entirely clear – if you read what he has written recently you might think the former was the graver error – but we get the gist.
However, the Conservative Party’s manifesto barely mentions the subject bar a paragraph which must have been tapped in at the last minute by a jobsworth after someone said “Oh, shouldn’t we do something about drugs rather than just overfilling the jails and pretending that we’ll get 20,000 more bobbies on the beat?” This is the party’s contribution: “Drug addiction fuels crime, violence and family breakdown – and new dangerous substances are driving an increase in deaths from drug abuse. We will tackle drug-related crime and, at the same time, take a new approach to treatment so we can reduce drug deaths and break the cycle of crime linked to addiction.” Whatever, as Churchill might have said.
It is just over a month since the House of Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee published a report which encouraged the Government to consult on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use. The committee pointed out that the UK has some of the highest drug death rates in Europe, particularly in Scotland, and recommended a “radical change in approach to UK drugs policy, moving from the current criminal justice approach to a health approach, with responsibility for drugs policy moving from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Care”.
But, what are the chances of this recommendation and the whole issue of drug policy surfacing during this election? Close to zero.
Still, at least one old familiar addictive British substance is guaranteed to be freely available in Parliament over the next five years: hypocrisy.