The Home Office admits it: Tough enforcement does not lower drug use

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em: Drug report casts doubt on 40 years of UK policy
Smoke 'em if you've got 'em: Drug report casts doubt on 40 years of UK policy
Ian Dunt By

It is the most significant report on drugs the British government has published for 40 years.

Today's Home Office report on international drug laws concludes that tough drug enforcement does not decrease use of illegal drugs. For the first time in nearly half a century, the report ends government insistence that the only way to crack down on drug use is to use draconian measures against personal possession. This is arguably the most important moment in British drug policy for a generation.

The evidence-based report looks at the health-led approach adopted in Portugal, which decriminalised drugs alongside public health initiatives. It resulted in reductions in all types of drug use. They compared this to countries such as Japan, which are much harsher. One of the main differences was that the health of drug users was much better in Portugal, where they were directed to health services.

It also kept an open mind about experiments in a liberal approach to cannabis in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, where it says it is "too early to know how they will play out but we will monitor the impacts of these new policies in the years to come".


The report, which was led by Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker, has been held up for months as the department recognised how damaging an evidence-based report would be to its long-held drug policies. It could only be published after the two coalition parties agreed to publish it alongside a tough report on legal highs. This emphatically rejected the New Zealand model of regulating new drugs and instead suggested a blanket ban.

If the Home Office thought the twin publishing plan would reduce the impact of the report, it was very much mistaken. The Home Office insists anything Baker says about the report is just a statement of his party's position. But the content of this report was written by civil servants, not Baker. This is an official Home Office report, signed off by home secretary Theresa May, putting the lie to 40 years of government policy.

The Home Office statement which followed was standard:

"This government has absolutely no intention of decriminalising drugs. Our drugs strategy is working and there is a long-term downward trend in drug misuse in the UK. It is right that we look at drugs policies in other countries and today's report summarises a number of these international approaches."

The downward trend is real, but the report puts the lie to the claim that it's due to government policy. For a start, it is international and also taking place in countries pursuing more liberal policies.

No-one is entirely sure why the decline is happening, although it is thought it could be linked to the decreasing popularity of smoking. Cannabis makes up the lion's share of illicit drug use and some experts believe the drug has declined in popularity, like tobacco, because smoking itself is increasingly seen as unfashionable. As cannabis rates fall, they drag down general drug use rates.

The report comes as the drugs debate arrives in the House of Commons for the first time in years. The Commons lags behind public debate on most issues, but in the case of the drug debate it can barely be seen in the rear-view mirror.

The debate was only triggered because of public pressure, with 135,000 people signing an online petition saying current drug laws are not working. Even so, few MPs are expected to attend.

It was called by Caroline Lucas of the Greens, who will likely be joined by Liberal Democrat MPs. The party has taken a brave stance on the issue. Labour and Tories will likely stay away.

Ahead of the vote, Anne-Marie Cockburn will be travelling to parliament to talk to MPs. Her daughter died after taking half a gram of ecstasy powder. It would have been her birthday today.

Since then Cockburn has called for drugs to be regulated by doctors and pharmacists. The ecstasy her daughter took was 91% pure, compared to an average street purity of 58%. Regulation would have made it unlikely she would have taken such a large amount.

A poll in the Sun today showed the public are way ahead of the political class on the issue. Seventy-one per cent believe the war on drugs has failed while 65% back a legal review. This tallies with an Ipsos Mori poll for the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation late last year which showed 53% of the public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised and 67% want a review of Britain's approach to drugs.

The movement of the Sun on the issue has been revealing. The paper, whose authoritarian instinct on issues of crime has long explained MPs' aversion to drug law reform, is now unashamedly liberal in its approach. Its editorial today read:

"We can't just carry on with the status quo. Something has to change."

The Sun's change on the issue hints at why Labour has not savaged the Liberal Democrats for the liberal position the party has adopted over recent months. Back in the day, attacks on 'loopy' Lib Dem policies on drugs were a cornerstone of Labour's approach to the party. Not anymore. Labour may not be willing to engage in the drug debate, but you can see that it no longer considers it a club it can beat political opponents with.

The thinking on drugs changed long ago. As the prime minister said in 2002, before becoming curiously silent on the issue:

"I mean it's like the elephant on our doorstep. It was hard to think of a more pressing subject that needed investigation. Are we not mad if we don't pursue a policy which cuts crime, saves lives and improves public health and safety?"

Now we just need the political establishment to admit what has been bubbling under the surface this entire time. The Home Office has been forced to admit it. Now MPs need to take account of the evidence and public opinion.

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