Are perceptions of drugs changing? The recent go-ahead for medical testing and trials with MDMA and psilocybin indicates that medically, at least, old scruples are being loosened. Politically, however, drugs are a risqué’ topic to approach, and seldom in recent times has Government wavered away from criminalisation policies. This approach, set by a moral standard from a by-gone age, seems, however, to be opening up for review and critique. The UK Home Affairs Committee on Drugs Policy (HACDP), which has, for the past year, been holding an inquiry into the UK’s drug policy, hints that the drug taboo is being opened up for public discussion
A year ago the HACDP, chaired by Keith Vaz, opened with testimonies by Sir Richard Branson and the former President of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss. Both are commissioners for the Global Commission on Drugs Policy (GCDP). Sir Richard Branson said: “The first thing that I and the Global Commission recommend is to stop criminal penalties for people who use drugs but do no harm to others.” Financially speaking, Branson also drew a connection between drug offences in the US and the private prison industry when he commented: “ In the United States there is a major private prison industry that depends on drug convictions – each prisoner costs over $40K a year, while treatment is under $10K.”
The Committee, which is the first of its kind to be inquiring into the UK’s drug policies in 10 years, has listened to speakers from across a variety of professions. Chief Constable Tom Hollis, a member of the Association of Police Officers, also spoke, along with the former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Tom Lloyd. Lloyd argued that youths who experiment with drugs should be shown the same discrepancy as ministers who have admitted they did the same in their youth. He said: “It seems hypocritical to saddle a young person with a criminal conviction that could blight their lives.” He also added: “Drug dealers all over the world are laughing at law enforcement.”
Profs. David Nutt and Les King have both appeared and were asked to talk about their roles within the government as advisors on drug policy. Although David Nutt’s comparison between horse riding and ecstasy lost him his position as chairman of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, he still stood by the statement when asked about it. As a result, he received a grilling on the morals of making such a comparison from the Tory representatives on the panel. More importantly, however, Nutt commented that politics, and not evidence-based science, had dominated drug policy in Britain since the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Nutt said the decision by the Home Sectary to classify magic mushrooms as Class A was the “final straw in the rationality in the 1971 drugs act.”
Also present were speakers who were against any change to the way we approach drugs. Among them were Peter Hitchens, journalist and author of The War we Never Fought: Britain’s Non-Existence War on Drugs. When Hitchens was asked by the panel if he could consider an addict as being a victim and whether sizeable efforts should be made in rehabilitation rather than just punishment, he answered: “Personally, no. I think that taking drugs is a wrong thing to do. I think there is good reason for there being a law against it. I think if people do it they should be punished according to the law. I think if we had held to that then we would see the same levels of drugs use we saw before the 1971 act, which were minimal.
Kathy Gyngell, a Fellow at the Centre of Policy Studies and writer for The Daily Mail, appeared next to Hitchens. She recently wrote an article called The PR Drugs Lobby never Sleeps. Can we Trust Wobbly Dave to Silence Fresh Demands of Legislation? She was asked if she questioned the impartiality of the committee, to which Mrs Gyngell responded: “Well, I was worried that you took your terms of reference from the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, which is basically a highly financed legalising lobby and that did disturb me because they have given out incorrect figures on drug use spiralling out of control globally.”
The panel member then responded to that with: “We have travelled from Turkey to the United States to Colombia and we will go to Portugal as well and we have seen many witnesses. I think it is fair to say that every person we have seen has given us different figures. No two figures have been the same.”
The Committee has heard its last speaker and we await the results of the committee’s findings. All of the Committee’s sessions can be read and heard online on the Parliamentary Website.