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.