Experts turn against war on drugs

Out of reach? Drug reform is unlikely under the coalition government
Out of reach? Drug reform is unlikely under the coalition government

By Ian Dunt

Advocates of drug law reform had reason to celebrate today after public statements by senior figures in the medical and legal community suggested the argument was turning in their favour.

The chair of the Bar Council argued in his most recent report that decriminalising drug use would have substantial public benefits, while the editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the UK's most well-respected medical publication, came out publicly in support of drug law reform.

The twin developments come at an exciting time for those calling for a more liberal drug policy. Both deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and prime minister David Cameron are on record questioning the effectiveness of Britain's drug laws. Activists hope reform might be in the pipeline.


In his most recent report the chair of the Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, argued that decriminalising drugs did not lead to greater use and would have the effect of cutting crime.

"A growing body of comparative evidence suggests that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences; it can free up huge amounts of police resources, reduce crime and recidivism and improve public health," he said.

"All this can be achieved without any overall increase in drug usage. If this is so, then it would be rational to follow suit. And this will save money and mean that there is less pressure on the justice system.

"A rational approach is not usually the response of large parts of the media when it comes to issues relating to criminal justice," he continued.

"This is something the Bar Council can address. We are apolitical; we act for the prosecution and the defence and most of the judiciary are former members. We can speak out in favour of an approach which urges policies which work and not those which simply play to the gallery."

The comments came at the same time as a special edition of the BMJ in which the editor, Fiona Godlee, endorses an article by Steve Rolles of Transform, a group which lobbies for reform of the UK's drugs laws.

"In a beautifully argued essay Stephen Rolles calls on us to envisage an alternative to the hopelessly failed war on drugs," she writes.

"He says, and I agree, that we must regulate drug use, not criminalise it."

Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs at Transform, said: "The war on drugs is in deep crisis. These comments show that support for drug policy reform is becoming more and more mainstream, and fundamental change is now inevitable.

"With a prime minster and deputy prime minister both longstanding supporters of alternatives to the war on drugs, at the very least the government must initiate an impact assessment comparing prohibition with decriminalisation and strict legal regulation."

In 2007, Mr Clegg - then Lib Dem home affairs spokesman - said the "so-called war on drugs is failing" following a critical RSA report into drug prohibition.

David Cameron voted in favour of recommendation 24 in the home affairs committee's inquiry into drug misuse in 2002, which read: "We recommend that the government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways-including the possibility of legalisation and regulation-to tackle the global drugs dilemma."

Activists may be disappointed if they expect a sea-change in policy on the back of the coalition government's legislative agenda, however.

While Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron have previously expressed a sympathetic view of the arguments calling for drug law reform, neither will be keen to trigger the media attack which would result from a move to liberalise drug laws.

Recent comments from home secretary Theresa May to the home affairs committee suggest the government is moving in precisely the opposite direction, and is ready to pass legislation allowing for temporary bans to be imposed on legal highs while the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) establishes their legal status.

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