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Home > Politics

Losing the war on drugs

15 July 2005

In June of 2003 the results of a detailed study commissioned by the government were presented to Tony Blair. The study was a Strategy Unit report on all aspects of the war on drugs. What it revealed was that the war, such as it is, is a lost cause, and that prohibition simply doesn’t work. This of course was not what Tony Blair wanted to hear, so for over two years, the report gathered dust in a Downing Street drawer. Then – late on the evening of July 1st, the night preceding the Live 8 concert and the week of the G8 summit – Blair finally released the report. Or at least half of it. The report was 105 pages long. The first 52 pages featured information related to the facts and figures about drugs – what drugs are taken and by whom; what drug-related crimes are committed and by whom. The second half of the report spelt out why the government’s policies were failing, and why, unless there were major changes in that policy, they would continue to fail. Guess which half of the report was published and which half was suppressed under the Grand Irony clause of the Freedom of Information Act. Bingo. Thankfully, someone leaked the policy in its entirety to the Guardian, and the Guardian put it here.

Transform Drug Policy Foundation is a think tank-cum-pressure group which seeks to draw public attention to the fact that ‘drug prohibition itself is the major cause of drug-related harm to individuals, communities and nations, and should be replaced by effective, just and humane government control and regulation.’ In January of last year Transform director Danny Kushlick discussed the issue of drug prohibition with Anne Widdecombe. Anne, incidentally, is for. During the debate, Kushlick posits that Transform expect ‘the regulation and control of all currently prohibited drugs through licensed sales, prescription and pharmacy sales […] to happen by 2020.’

To be honest, considering the current climate, we thought this a little overly optimistic. This administration after all, is still making noises about reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug. And this coming Monday will see magic mushrooms reclassified as a Class A drug, alongside heroin. And crack. Let that sink in for a moment. From Monday, magic mushrooms – one of God’s finest and best-thought through gifts to his creation – are to share equal billing with crack cocaine – one of mankind’s most odious and harmful gifts to himself. This is not the act of a government that understands the first thing about – well, about anything really. The chasm of difference between magic mushrooms and crack is like that between breast-milk and absinthe. It’s absurd. And it’s an insult. And as far as we can see, it doesn’t bode at all well.

So could we seriously be looking at a complete policy turnaround within the next fifteen years? We asked Transform’s Information Officer, Steve Rolles. He thinks we can. First up he told us that the climate might not be quite as ever-increasingly primitive as we imagine. ‘Cannabis is almost certainly not going to be reclassified,’ he said. ‘That was just some pre-election sleight of hand by the Government to avoid attack on an issue they felt vulnerable on. The media got over-excited about a non-story. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will report in the autumn saying the same as they’ve said for the last 20 years – that cannabis should be class C – and that’ll be the end of that.’ Phew.

As for mushrooms, the open sale we’ve witnessed over the last few years is apparently down to a loophole in the law, which the government will finally stitch shut on Monday. This, says Rolles, is purely ‘a political move to appear tough on drugs rather than something that had been properly thought through. The political climate means that moves towards substantive law reform aren’t possible at the moment. That is what is going to change over the next few years – as the drug war is increasingly exposed for the fraudulent failure it clearly is, public, political and media opinion will continue to shift in a positive direction. A point will be reached as with all the great social reforms of the past century where a manifestly failing and unjust legal structure can no longer be sustained.’

Well, we certainly do hope so. But in the month that the government have shamelessly buried one of the most significant documents on the drugs issue ever to be unpublished, and indeed continue to suppress the follow-up report, entitled Diagnoses and Recommendations and full of sensible suggestions of how we can replace the current policies, it seems that at the moment we’re not even being allowed to debate the issues. The facts are being kept from us. As Rolles points out, the Strategy Unit report made the front page of the Guardian alone, was also picked up by the BBC and the Daily Mirror as well as featuring to a lesser extent in the Independent, the Observer and the Telegraph. A drop in the ocean compared, to give one example, to the non-story of cannabis reclassification. ‘Unfortunately,’ Rolles adds, ‘it emerged in the most momentous news week in British history. Any other week and it would have been a huge story.’

However, the unfortunate timing of the leaking of the report aside, Rolles feels that its significance will not be underestimated, eventually: ‘This is after all, a report commissioned by Tony Blair and presented to him, that shows very clearly that the drug war is failing at every level, and is *actively counterproductive*... This is a policy that the Government still chooses to pour huge resources into and back with fiery rhetoric, despite it being abundantly clear that they know it isn’t helping at all. It will no doubt receive more attention as time goes on and within the drug policy field its effect has been seismic. The shock waves will be reverberating for some time.’

Well, thank heavens for that. It really was a long time coming, but, thanks in a sense to Blair’s good sense in commissioning the report in the first place (but bad sense and – let’s face it – crookedness in not wanting anyone to hear the truth), the War On Drugs might soon be transformed into a much healthier Discussion About Drugs. Drugs after all, are not going to go away. You can’t legislate something for which there is great demand out of existence. So we’re going to have to learn how we can live together with drugs, how we can understand drugs and the people who take drugs, ensuring as we do so that the least number of people possible are harmed in the process.

Then, if we’re really clever, maybe we can extend that logic to the other wars we’re fighting, and eventually limp towards something that might actually merit the word ‘civilisation’.

Baby steps.

We Are Not Alone

The True Price of Prohibition

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