Jeremy Sare on decriminalising drugs

Jeremy SareWhen the most senior copper responsible for drugs openly questions the sense of criminalising young people for drugs possession then perhaps the game is finally up for the strict advocates of prohibition.

Chief Constable Tim Hollis has been the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead on drugs since 2006, so he is no naïve Chief. Speaking to the Observer last weekend, he said, “We don’t want to criminalise young people because, put bluntly, if we arrest young kids for possession of cannabis and put them before the courts we know what the outcome’s going to be, so actually it’s perfectly reasonable to give them words of advice or take it off them.”

Since then he felt compelled to issue a clarifying statement, saying, “Neither I nor the ACPO are calling for the legalisation of cannabis.” I’m not sure anyone has suggested his common sense view of reviewing police priorities on drug possession offences had anything to do with the issue of “legalisation” which is quite a separate matter.

Nevertheless, his welcome remarks can be added to an extra-ordinary list of scientific academics as well as legal and policy experts who now form the intellectual majority in calling for a more proportionate system and application of drug laws. Niamh Eastwood, head of legal services for Release said, “When those responsible for the enforcement of drug legislation call for a debate on the options of how to address drug use, the Government must listen.”

In July, Nicholas Green QC, the chairman of the Bar Council for England and Wales, said it was “rational” to consider “decriminalising personal drug use.”  He told the Daily Telegraph, “A growing body of comparative evidence suggests that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences.”

When Sir Ian Gilmore, formerly of the Royal College of Physicians called, last month, for changes to the criminal justice system, “to cut crime and addicts’ health problems,” the Home Office was sufficiently piqued to rush out a medically perverse statement. It said, it could not possibly entertain such radical notions like decriminalisation as, “heroin, cocaine, and cannabis were all extremely dangerous drugs.”

“Extremely dangerous” certainly applies to heroin. But would the description be as apt for cocaine? Scientific evidence says, no. And cannabis? Definitely not. Yet their response deemed these drugs to be of equivalent harm. (I understand, two weeks later, the statement went through a process of “revision” to omit the word “cannabis.”)

Chief Constable Hollis, timed his remarks to coincide with the Government’s consultation on a new 10-year Drugs Strategy. Although the consultation period is curiously short and there is (again) no impact assessment attached, the paper does show some, albeit rather small, indications of optimism for reformers.

Niamh Eastwood takes a bleaker view. “The consultation paper seems more concerned with tweaking the drug treatment system than addressing the current policy failure.” she said.

But the new strategy document indicates, encouragingly, the Home Office’s stranglehold on drugs policy looks to be have been loosened a little. The strategy appears much more modular, allowing greater definition of policy responsibility between departments now including Work and Pensions for the first time.

In the longer term, it would be worth considering the merits of the France’s inter-ministerial structure (MILDT) where one ministry cannot dominate the agenda. Spreading responsibility across departments (answering directly to the Prime Minister) allows the French to more easily integrate policy and interventions on illegal drugs with other substances of abuse such as alcohol, tobacco, and prescribed drugs.

But in Britain, the new drugs Minister, James Brokenshire, is not seeking revolutionary change. Nevertheless with progressive views on education and prevention, he seemed, in the recent Parliamentary debate (9 September) to be an enlightened soul compared to the dour and depressingly inflexible former Minister, Alan Campbell Brokenshire announced the new temporary ban category for ‘legal highs’ would have no possession offence attached, as he did not wish to “unnecessarily incriminate young people.” Clearly, the drugs Chief, Tim Hollis and many prominent members of the medical establishment would like to see that benign principle spread more widely. (Campbell, for Labour, dragged out the exhausted political cliché that this meant the Conservatives were going ‘soft’. He also downgraded still further the value of scientific evidence so showed he has practically nothing positive to offer this discussion.)
Chief Constable Hollis is right; it is time to conduct, “a mature debate around the harms caused by illicit drugs.” Professor David Nutt, chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, said in the Guardian, the Coalition “should seize the opportunity to establish a genuinely science-based approach to drugs policy.”

We all have a stake in this: we should consider what we want our drugs policy to do, starting by being honest and inclusive to young people and parents.
Danny Kushlick, Head of External Affairs for Transform finds little cause for hope, “The public and professional tide is clearly moving toward decriminalisation and legal regulation. The crass anti-drugs rhetoric from the Government and the limited parameters of the strategy consultation are mired in the past – based on fear mongering and short term, self-serving political expediency.”

Now the Government is actively seeking the widest views from drug policy stakeholders and the general public, they should be mindful they would stand almost alone if they tried to simply uphold the status quo.

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