Jeremy Sare on drug sentencing

Jeremy SareMost drug users are not addicted. Most suppliers of drugs are not dealers. These central truths about patterns of drug use in Britain are incompatible with the policies adopted by those in power who believe ever more muscular enforcement will somehow steer young people away from taking them. In drugs policy, there remains an unparalleled disconnect between power and knowledge. And power means both ministers and media who, on drugs policy, are intertwined in a deadly embrace.

There is no better example of this disconnect when attempts are made to draw a definitive line between possession and supply. Sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? When a consultation paper on sentencing guidelines was published last month, it drew a spirited if somewhat deranged reaction from the Sun and the Daily Mail. The sentencing council was trying to establish, for the first time, a framework of sentencing for drugs including those caught in “possession with intent to supply.” Both papers recklessly exaggerated the well-considered measures being proposed: the Sun’s, front page speculated whether judges were substance abusers themselves, asking pejoratively, “What are they on?”
In these reports, the drugs were all presented as “addictive” and of equivalent risk; all dealers were only in the business of “enslavement.” This deeply misleading language is also expressed routinely in Parliamentary debates. But the majority of drug use involves substances with quite low addictive properties like cannabis and ecstasy and are not taken habitually – most illegal drugs are supplied mate-to-mate for no profit.
Ministers have already wrestled with the issue of what amount constitutes “possession with intent to supply” and have roundly failed, although nearly all Western countries have managed to set a level on dealing. Here we can actually measure, in figures, the gap between a reasoned view and self-conscious fear of drugs. The sentencing council suggested a reasonable amount to possess before being deemed a supplier, was about 10g for Class A, 50g for cannabis. Drugs officers and drug users may also agree broadly with those levels.
But ask a minister, or tabloid editor, and you will get a wildly different world view from those who actually inhabit it. Indeed, to the arch-prohibitionists, setting any prescribed limits simply amounts to legitimising drug dealing and our once great nation sliding ignobly into the sea.
Perversely, Parliament has already passed the law (under the Drugs Act 2005) to determine the levels for dealing. The Home Secretary at the time, Charles Clarke, was horrified by the recommendations made by the twenty or so police forces who suggested there could be a maximum possession amount for cannabis. Clarke quietly strangled the entire legislation in fear of the media backlash; the law sits now gathering dust with no prospect of revival.
The sentencing council have merely tried to apply reason to an area of policy where politics has shown it cannot succeed.

We can also see the process of adopting an inflexible and tough-talking attitude to drug control in microcosm when individual MPs revert to a regressive path, particularly when being considered for elevation in their party or in Government.
Nearly ten years ago, the bright, young MP from Whitney, and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was described by its chairman, Chris Mullin, as someone who “can be relied upon to follow his own instincts rather than the party line.” Unfortunately when the leadership of the Conservative Party beckoned, such reformist agendas were disposed of in favour of the weary language of the prohibitionist. As PM, Cameron’s transformation has been complete. Having previously supported lowering the class of ecstasy (from A to B) and endorsed a wholesale review of the classification system, he said, “I am very clear in terms of the actual policy that we should not be changing classifications, we should be keeping them where we are.”

But travelling in the opposite direction politically is former Drugs Minister and later Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth. Once unburdened by the yoke of office, he spoke his mind on reforming drug law and was vilified by all sides. Even his own party briefed against him anonymously, calling his comments “irresponsible.” In a Westminster debate, last December he tried, in vain, to persuade his opponents to stop the puerile characterisation of questioning the status quo as being “soft on drugs.”
It was after ministerial visits to Jamaica and Afghanistan, Ainsworth began to alter his “traditional view,” having witnessed “societies hugely corrupted by drug money. The restrictive prohibitive model…is useless,” he said.
He painted a picture of politicians constrained by a conformist view which contrasted markedly with the details of what they knew to be the truth. “For example, most of the population are given the impression the police are trying really hard to stop drugs from coming into the country. They’re not. Any senior policeman would tell you they know it’s impossible. They can only disrupt.” Last year, almost two tonnes of cocaine was seized at the borders but it is estimated at least ten times that amount got through.
“Politicians often only want to appear credible and mainstream. The public are far more open to the need for change than the media and the body politic,“ he said.
A year ago, the wild media stories about Mephedrone spooked Labour into rushing in legislation before much was known about the drug. The law was passed almost unopposed. The politicians and the media share blind opposition to all constructive discussion on changing the drugs agenda. They inhabit a parallel existence where drugs only bring “misery” – their rhetoric inspires deep frustration by those working in the field and bemused contempt by the users themselves.

Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist and government consultant. He is a former secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and formerly head of drug legislation at the Home Office.

  • MDs have to be more vocal in opposition to drug prohibition because this pseudo-scientific social experiment is carried out in the name of medicine and public health.

    Also, MDs have to give up their illusion of power and control and realize that just because you refuse someone a prescription (for opiates, stimulants, benzodiazepines) doesn't mean that person will not buy on the blackmarket, at much greater risk to their health and legal safety.

    Around 1900 you could buy most any drugs (heroin, cocaine, mescaline, etc) without a prescription. By all indications problem drug use has increased under prohibition.

    The only “success” of drug prohibition was ending the so-called opium plauge in 19th century China, but the extent of problem opium use in China has been greatly exaggerated. In a country without aspirin, antibiotics, or quinine, opium was a very useful medication for pain, diarrhea, and fever. Most opium users did so for medical reasons and most recreational use was only occassional in social situations. Christian missionaries saw sick people laying by the road smoking opium, and they concluded that opium was a deadly “pernicious evil”. The missionaries themselves introduced people to injectable morphine and heroin as a “cure”, and under the eventual prohibition injection was prefered because it was quicker and had no smell. For decades, China officially claimed to have eliminated all recreational opiate use (this is the basis of the prohibitionists' success claim), but China is now know to have a large number of injecting drug users with HIV.

    Read about opium in China in the book “Narcotic Culture” by University of London historian Frank Dikötter, or see his condensed essay version “'Patient zero': China and the myth of the opium plague”.

    The WHO estimates that 80% of people have very limited or no access to opiate pain medications (see Access to Controlled Medications Programme). This means that about six million people die of cancer each year without pain medication.

    Meanwhile in the West, the typical opiate “dealers” are not connected to the Taliban, rather they are old people on pensions who can legitimately get a script from the MD. There is simply no way to stop this.

    Of course, it is naive to think the goal of prohibition is to end drug use. Rather, blackmarket drug sales make a tremendous amount of profit for police, border guards, judges, banks, businesses. In 2010 the president of Interpol, Jackie Selebi, was convicted of taking bribes from a drug dealer. Headline from the Telegraph 2008: “'Corrupt' prison guards fuel drug culture”. In 2009, during the economic crisis, UN drug chief Antonio Costa said, “In many instances, drug money is currently the only liquid investment capital,” and there were “signs that some banks were rescued in that way.”

    Please, let us wake up and create an evidence-based drug policy that respects science and human rights. Good resources at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, and the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy

  • McD

    “…bemused contempt…” Exactly!

  • The persecution of drug users without scientific basis is tyranny, pure and simple. Nothing more than a protection racket which preys on the sick.

  • Roz11

    Good article, the situation regarding the media/government's inability to talk about drugs in a sensible way is laughable. Or at least it would be if it weren't quite so damaging. Why should this problem be restricted to drugs though? How often does the party which the Sun supports win the general election?

  • Charlesbroughd1

    Proposals to legalize the use of marijuana are being increasingly considered and if it occurs, it would remove a huge burden on 
    Mexico with having to battle gangsters we make rich and even smuggle arms to.

    However, when and if the growing and selling of marijuana (and other narcotics as well) is legalized, the whole will become corporatized and end up in the hands of giant corporations that will innundate the public with advertising promoting the benefits and minimizing the costs and risks.  This is just what happened with alcoholic beverages, gambling and smoking.

    The government could handle it instead and keep it unadvetised, but then the government itself would benefit from the taxes on the products and hence motivated to promote their use as happened in the Soviet Union. In “The Last Civilization,” the point is made that we have gradually lost a moral ability to, with individual self-discipline, control temptations because of the increasing ideological division of the world. A new and advanced ideology is needed to replace them.
    Brough, civilization-overview dot com