A cheer for Nick Clegg – he is talking about drugs

Published in The Independent (February 10th, 2014)

Hooray! Give Nick Clegg a cheer – at last we have a prominent frontline politician talking some sense on drugs. Following a trip to Colombia, the Liberal Democrat leader says the status quo is failing, pointing out cocaine use has trebled in under two decades despite the supposed war on drugs, and that blanket prohibition has caused carnage and conflict around the planet.

He is also right to point out that our timorous politicians talk about drug reform only when they have left office, fearing the media storm that might engulf them. The most interesting recent example of this is Labour’s Bob Ainsworth, whose experiences at the Home Office turned him into an unlikely drugs campaigner; he found the public far more progressive on this issue than he had expected.

This is unsurprising, given that voters live in the real world. The Sixties generation that tuned in and turned on is now claiming free bus passes, while those speed-fuelled punks are becoming grandparents and the rave generation is having children. Recent surveys have found two-thirds of the electorate favour a review of drug laws, and a majority support reform of the cannabis laws – including half of Conservative supporters. Previous studies found particularly strong support among middle-aged women.

Yet Mr Clegg deserves only one cheer for his supposedly bold intervention in this debate – and that is for raising the political profile of an important issue that has been swept aside by most British politicians for too long. This fearful silence was one more reason for the distrust of politicians, one more example of the dislocation between Westminster and the rest of the country. The hope is that after too many unnecessary deaths, the issue of drug reform is at last driven into the centre of political debate.

I am not going to rehearse well-worn arguments in favour of regulating the drug trade and taking it out of the hands of the world’s most lethal gangsters. You only have to look at the deaths of those young people killed by taking what they thought was ecstasy and turned out to be PMA, or to ponder the causes of the collapse of a country once seen to be as stable as Mali. Or indeed to consider the Canute-like hopelessness of trying to prevent the tide of newly-created smart drugs from entering our nation.

The simple fact is that many human beings like taking drugs, whether it is alcohol or ecstasy, cannabis or cocaine. For some people this spirals into devastating and life-threatening addiction, as seen again last week with the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Illegality makes the suffering worse for the addicts themselves, their families and their communities. Since the continuation of this unregulated, underground market is lunacy on so many levels, we can be thankful that a war on drugs, begun by a shamed US president four decades ago, is nearing its end around the world thanks to brave politicians in Latin American and parts of Europe.

Mr Clegg seeks to join their ranks, with his laughable call for Britain to lead the debate in Europe and for Europe to lead the debate in the world. It must have passed him by that two countries on our continent – Portugal and the Czech Republic – have already decriminalised drug use. Or that Uruguay has become the world’s first country to legalise the marijuana trade, while other Latin leaders push even more dramatic reforms. Even the current US president – who has admitted using cocaine, a drug that has caused the imprisonment of thousands of his fellow citizens – now says marijuana is no more lethal than alcohol, after seeing states start permitting pot usage.

If only our Deputy Prime Minister was displaying similar boldness, let alone any genuine liberalism, by demanding radical reform in Britain too. Yet instead of proposing any action, he is resorting to the nervous refrain of calling for more debate on a subject that has been debated for decades. Sadly, he appears to be doing this only for the most naked and short-term political reasons, as part of his desperate efforts to find some definition for his flailing party, blaming Tory coalition partners for refusing to engage in proper discussion.

The irony is that the last front-rank politician who began tiptoeing in this direction is now Prime Minister. When standing for party leader, David Cameron called for the sensible downgrading of ecstasy from a class A drug – but last November his Government announced plans to ban the mild stimulant khat, in defiance of advice from experts and MPs. Yet as some on the right in America have finally realised, regulating the legal use of drugs is the perfect conservative policy since it is tough on crime, saves money, safeguards children, aids development and improves security around the world.

Once again, the Tories touched on something significant in opposition, then dropped the baton in government. Mr Clegg has shown political astuteness by seizing the issue. He is absolutely right in his analysis that prohibition has failed and addiction must be treated as a health issue. Now he needs to show real courage by coming out and stating the obvious: Britain, like all other wealthy nations, should legalise and regulate all drugs.

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