It looks like drug reformers are about to get a foothold in policy

Norman Baker: The most important figure in the British drug debate
Norman Baker: The most important figure in the British drug debate
Ian Dunt By

If Norman Baker's comment this morning is true, we're about to enter unprecedented territory in the drug law debate.

The liberal (with a big and a small 'l') minister is suspected of either going native at the Home Office or acting as a trojan horse for Nick Clegg's progressive views on drugs. His comments in the pages of today's Times only serve to make his role murkier.

Baker said he was considering plans to licence shops to sell legal highs,in a bid to bring the trade under the control of regulators.

He added:

"We should maybe look at licensing them like sex shops with blacked-out windows and not allowing under-18s in."

The comment won swift support from drug law reformers.

Danny Kushlik from Transform Drug Policy Foundation said:

"Norman Baker deserves enormous respect for broaching the issue of the legal regulation of legal highs. His clarion call for responsible government control prioritises citizens' health and safety over populist grandstanding and 'tough on drugs' rhetoric. Let us hope that his Labour and Conservative colleagues support his bold pragmatism."

Drug law reformers are excited because they know legal highs can turn into the thin end of the wedge when it comes to ending prohibition.

The laws on controlled substances can't really deal with legal highs because a small change to the structure of a chemical often means it falls outside statute. You cut off one head and two grow in its place.

Of course, if you could guarantee safe, high quality drugs people wouldn't go messing around with strange white powders they get through the post and we could save a few lives. Unfortunately, that's not where the debate is right now.

However, Baker's proposal would get us close. He is speaking openly about regulating recreational drugs on the high street. For this to have come from a Home Office minster is a slap-yourself-to-check-whether-you're-sleeping development.

But why do it this way? Why not wait until concrete proposals have been properly formulated in the department to give it a semblance of nuetral civil servant calculation, rather than the increasingly impatient crusade of a liberal minister? The plan now has the indelible mark of being his favoured choice.

And why make the comments to the Times, which is one of the papers least likely to give them time? Even the Sun would have been more sympathetic.

In fact, the Times felt the need to lead with:

"Dangerous 'legal highs' that mimic the effects of heroin and other Class A drugs will be sold in licensed high street shops under plans being considered by ministers."

Not exacly a glowing endorsement.

It then gave Baker a handful of paragraphs before throwing in some quotes from the Angelus Foundation (never heard of it), an anti-legal highs group, about how "darkened windows could make the drugs more attractive to youngsters".

(Such nonsense. They say this stuff as if young people are wandering around Britain, blissfully unaware of drugs under prohibition. But oh, don't suggest darkened windows. That'll really get them interested.)

If Baker was flying a kite - trying to get a sense of how something like this would play out in the media - he picked an odd paper to do it in. Some reformers think he's just biting at the bit  and has become impatient to get real change secured.

Whatever the criticisms, Baker is pursuing a brave strategy here. These are big, important developments. Every week there is further evidence that we are reaching a tipping point on drug law. Baker is the most important person in the debate.


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