Hard drugs on dark table. Drug syringe and cooked heroin

Crispin Blunt: ‘The UK’s hopeless drug policies need urgent reform and overhaul’

The think tank I founded in 2019 as the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group has just become the Centre for Evidence Based Drug Policy. My team and I have found that we are just as often trying to persuade MPs of opposition parties as my own. But it is not just that the leadership of the Labour party is as consistently hopeless as my own party on drug policy; it is more basic than this.

I believe drug policy simply cannot be a party political issue. Harm reduction, saving lives, taking pressure off public services like A&E and police – whatever your political tribe, you are overwhelmingly likely to support these objectives. 

The biggest problem with our country’s way of making drug policy is that the government’s expert advisory group – the supposedly independent body that politicians rely on for expertise and advice when formulating drug policies – has been slowly but surely neutered over the last two decades. 

We saw this recently, with the government’s decision to ban Nitrous oxide. Plans for the ban were announced just days after the ACMD advised the Home Office not to do so – the advice was rejected so quickly one wonders that Ministers had time to read it. 

In terms of funding, the picture is worse still: the entire annual spending of HM Government on expert advice for the formulation of drug policy is roughly equivalent to one full-time London salary. In one year (2017) the total spend was £26,264. Our country’s entire drugs policy advisory system is essentially operating on a sandwiches and train tickets expenses budget – this is clearly no way to produce good drugs policy. 

For comparison, the annual costs of drug-related harms to Britain are an estimated £19,400,000,000. 

With a mere 0.0001% of the total cost of misuse of drugs is spent on trying to address the issue, and with the experts routinely ignored by the Government anyway, we have clearly gone astray. 

Plans for a ‘shadow ACMD’ 

Put simply, my team and I have run out of patience. Unless and until we fix these deep rooted problems in how the ACMD works and the disregard with which government treats its advice, we are likely to keep seeing bad drugs policy decisions, taken on the basis of how this or that decision fits with party political ‘tough on crime’ slogans, or how favourably spin doctors anticipate this or that announcement will be reported in the media. 

It is clear that the ACMD must be given a shot in the arm. To this end, the Centre for Evidence Based Drug Policy is announcing plans for a ‘shadow ACMD’. We are throwing down a challenge to the status quo by showing how much more effective a robust, empowered body would be in guiding Ministers towards effective, evidence based decision making. 

The new body, to which I am calling the UK’s top drugs policy experts and neuropsychopharmacologists, will be genuinely independent, better resourced and encouraged from the outset to tackle the issues the Home Office seems determined to ignore. 

Over the next month and a half, I will be working with top experts in the field – including Professor David Nutt, who was unceremoniously sacked by the last Labour government for expressing his professional opinion, and who has welcomed our plans – to establish terms of reference for the new body. We will seek funding, which will most likely come (if it comes) from philanthropists who believe we need to change how we ‘do drugs’– to provide for a secretariat to establish and support the new body. 

We will then select and find top quality applicants. It is my hope and intention that by the time of the next election we will have assembled a shadow ACMD whose board is more impressive than the government’s own advisory panel (in part because I anticipate that the most independently minded of the current members will wish to join us). 

We seek to get both main parties to cease competing on drug policy based on shallow headline only analysis. This country’s drug policies need urgent reform and overhaul to stop the horrendous waste of human life and taxpayers’ money. We are seeing competitor nations like Germany and the United States pull ahead with sensible, pragmatic reforms that are fit for the 21st century. These competitors will soon be reaping the economic, social and indeed political rewards of doing so. I – and the Center for Evidence Based Drug Policy – are determined that Britain should not miss out. 

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