It is now 43 years since President Richard Nixon announced his ‘war on drugs’. His comments came in the summer of 1971 at the height of public concern in America over cannabis use, fear at a growing ‘hippy’ culture and two years after Woodstock. Many commentators believe the war he mentioned focused on Cannabis, however it has widened in recent years to include all drug classes.
In recent weeks Admiral Robert Papp, head of the US Coast Guard was heavily criticised for stating that it was disheartening to watch a continued battle against drugs being lost. Many will not agree with the premise of his argument, however, it was sufficiently interesting to make me consider a number of similar comments in the United Kingdom.
The more I looked the more I was surprised by the apparent cross party agreement that the current status quo is failing to prevent the steady growth in drugs use and availability.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) called for a Royal Charter to investigate the possibility of moving to the Portuguese model where all drugs are no longer subject to criminal sanction but rather become considered a public health issue. He was quoted as saying that the UK was ‘losing the battle against drugs on an industrial scale.’ Despite rapid dissociation from the Prime Minister, this remains Liberal Democrat policy.
His argument was that countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States end up criminalising significant proportions of their population for drugs offences often initiating a downward spiral. He suggested that once in possession of a criminal record for drug possession/supply, an individual was effectively marginalised in society. This made their employment less likely and ultimately increased the potential for them to re-use.
In the summer of 2012 former Home Secretary and political heavyweight Ken Clarke (Conservative) also commented that the United Kingdom was losing it’s war on drugs. Despite being lambasted for making such a comment he wasn’t alone in holding those views at the time. Although taking different views on the solution, a similar admission is made by Louise Mench MP (2012) Speaking against legalisation. Ms Mench was a fellow Conservative MP at the time and open in her admission of previously having taken class A drugs.
Former chief advisor to the government Professor David Nutt (politically independent) is perhaps the most well known individual to take a public stand which ran contrary to public policy at the time. Nutt argues that his views are based on empirical evidence and is nothing more than a logical position based around the relative dangers of non-prescribed (illegal) drugs, compared to items such as tobacco and alcohol.
To complete the political consensus, it was only this summer that the Labour magazine claiming to voice thought leadership to the party made the same comment. It encouraged the party to support legalisation of recreational drugs – including those currently classified as Class A such as Crystal Meth and Cocaine.
In addition to the voices from the political classes, a number of social commentators have been calling for a debate on current drugs policy. Some are perhaps unsurprising.
Russell Brand’s debate and near battle with Peter Hitchin on Newsnight has become something of required viewing when considering the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. One considers the requirement to move from criminalisation to treating as a medical condition akin to a disease or illness. The other holds the position that a more punitive enforcement of the criminal law would be more likely to lead to success.
However, increasingly less typically anticipated voices are making themselves heard. Richard Branson recently spoke out encouraging a move to treatment rather than regulation. He also made the point that most politicians in power find it impossible to speak out about the issue. However, they frequently move to the position once they have left power. He cites former Presidents Carter and Clinton as examples. He also drew comparisons between the fight against drugs and the prohibition of alcohol in 1920’s America.
So my position isn’t to propose a ‘solution’ I don’t presume to know enough to do so. However, what is clear to me is that the current status quo isn’t working. More over there appears to be near political unanimity in agreeing that position. I don’t want a world where the population is wandering around in a drugged stupor (legal or illegal). I’ve also seen far too many people’s lives ruined with remarkably little in the way of support.
My question and challenge is that if that is the case – where is the political discussion? Is it simply easier to sedate large numbers on methadone rather than face up to a problem we all know exists and isn’t improving.
How many politicians from how many parties and political stances does it take to speak out before the issue becomes important enough to shape a new public policy ?