The Commons Home Affairs Committee is compiling a report on drugs use in the UK, focusing on the effectiveness or otherwise of the government’s strategy, published in 2010.
Giving evidence to the committee, justice secretary Ken Clarke admitted that Britain is “plainly losing the war on drugs… it could be argued we are going backwards at times.” He acknowledged that the existing criminal law was not working. But rather puzzlingly he insisted this was no reason for despair, and politicians had to keep on trying to curb a problem that would not be solved by decriminalisation.
Bob Ainsworth, a Home Office minister in the last labour government, went on record eighteen months ago to say successive governments’ approaches had failed, leaving criminal gangs in control. He said he realised when Home Office minister in charge of drugs policy that the so-called war on drugs could not be won. He said: “We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.” The former chief adviser to the government on drugs, Prof David Nutt, said that most MPs actually agree with Mr Ainsworth, but feel they cannot say so publicly because of the pressure of politics.
In January, the entrepreneur and campaigner Sir Richard Branson told the committee that abuse of illegal substances should be treated as a health issue, while only suppliers should be the people facing tough penalties.
Former chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd, said something had to change. “We’ve got so used to 40 years of prohibition which, in my experience of over 30 years of policing, has led to massive cost, a failure to achieve the primary aims, which is the reduction of drug use, and a range of unintended harmful consequences” he said. Drug-related crime is held to be directly caused by prohibition.
Close contact with drugs investigation teams in Customs & Excise some years ago left me with great admiration for their skill, dedication and bravery in this most dangerous field. Outstanding results were obtained, but the level of street prices after big successes just showed that as one ring was taken out others moved in seamlessly. It’s not a war the government can win. Whilst there is demand there will be supply.
There is a well argued case for separating cannabis from harder drugs. In the 1980s the Warnock report recommended decriminalisation but the proposal was not adopted. In 2002 cannabis was downgraded to class C by Home Secretary David Blunkett, but Gordon Brown let it be known when he became Prime Minister in 2007 that he intended to return the classification of cannabis to class B. Penalties for class B drug offences are draconian. Possession of a single joint can now lead to five years imprisonment, a wholly disproportionate penalty for a drug which is significantly less harmful than alcohol.
Ken Clarke said: “My purely personal view is I’d be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation on youngsters who start experimenting. The really key thing is to work out what can get fewer young people to start experimenting with drugs.” This comes ill from one who has been extremely well paid to promote the equally harmful, though legal, products of British American Tobacco.