Slowly but surely, the West is coming down from the hallucinatory war on drugs

Published by The Independent (27th July, 2015)

The stench of hypocrisy has long hung over the drugs debate. Politicians joke about their own use, then talk tough about the dangers and the need to crack down on criminals. This could be heard again last week when the candidates for the Labour leadership were quizzed by a radio listener over cannabis. ‘I’ve had a few smokes when I was at college,’ replied Liz Kendall. ‘I did inhale… but that’s never been my favourite form of relaxation.

Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper also admitted taking the odd toke during student days; only the austere Jeremy Corbyn had never tried cannabis. All three former users stressed these were youthful indiscretions – as politicians always do. Yet they are in good company at Westminster: cabinet ministers have made similar confessions and even the Prime Minister admitted to smoking dope at school.

But there is nothing funny about political behaviour on this issue. They think it fine to smoke a few spliffs as students, then go on to uphold outdated laws that ensure others who are less fortunate, less wealthy or less white end up with a criminal conviction for doing the same thing. More than 25,000 people annually receive a criminal conviction for cannabis offences, each one seeing career and travel prospects blighted.

Once again it is a case of do as politicians say, not as they do. None of the Conservative ministers see any conflict over their stance on drugs. None of the self-declared Labour saviours possesses the wit or wisdom to see that one potential way to reconnect their becalmed party with a disillusioned public might be to show boldness on drugs. Yet clearly prohibition has failed when prices are falling and purity is rising, and every day 220,000 adults in England and Wales take illegal substances.

Westminster has shown pathetic timidity, despite a British majority for cannabis reform and growing global acceptance that the war on drugs has been a dismal failure. Almost two dozen other countries are introducing forms of decriminalisation, which makes sense on fiscal, political and moral grounds. Even in the United States, which launched the catastrophic war four decades ago, 23 states permit medicinal use of marijuana with four more legalising and regulating the drug. Several more may follow suit after balloting voters.

But for all the failures of our political leaders, are we now starting to see the same kind of locally-led assault on prohibition as witnessed in America? The Government remains wedded to the disastrous old approach, as seen by its doomed attempt to ban legal highs (a market only created as an alternative to illegal ones). Yet at the same time tough cuts in public spending have given progressive police leaders the excuse to stop wasting precious resources on prosecuting people for growing or smoking cannabis. This is a welcome step.

The lead has been set by police and crime commissioners – a position, after all, created by the Tories to drive innovation. Finally, some are making waves for the right reasons. Two of them – Ron Hogg in Durham and Alan Charles in Derbyshire – have effectively decriminalised cannabis in their counties, saying they no longer want police officers to waste time arresting users or people growing the drug for their own use. A third, Martyn Underhill in Dorset, said he admires their move and is discussing with senior officers whether to follow suit. Hopefully more will jump on the bandwagon now it is rolling.

Both Hogg and Charles say they need to prioritise spending and must focus on the most serious offences rather than stoners with a few pot plants in their back garden. This is understandable when George Osborne is suggesting more budget cuts for police, after the Coalition government already slashed spending by 26 per cent. Quite rightly, the pair want their hard-pressed forces to spend time chasing the gangs and street dealers that threaten communities, while helping any users with addiction issues. The key is harm reduction, rather than prosecution of people using cannabis for pleasure or pain relief.

Yet it is hard not to see the bigger picture in political terms. Mike Barton, Durham’s chief constable, has long been a brave and outspoken advocate for decriminalisation of drugs, pointing out prohibition failed to stop supply while funding organised crime. He also says, correctly, that alcohol is a far bigger societal problem. Now Hogg, a former police officer, says he wants to open a national debate and has written to the Prime Minister about the failure of current drug laws.

Slowly but surely, the Western world is coming down from the hallucinatory war on drugs. Legalisation and regulation is safer for both users and society at large. One day we will look back with amazement at the idea of handing control of potentially-dangerous markets to the most lethal gangs on earth. These small steps in Derbyshire and Durham on cannabis are one more sign of progress towards a saner world.

Although there are concerns over a postcode lottery for drug prosecutions, this shows how austerity can force positive innovation. But how telling that the impetus for reform is coming from within the police, frustrated by the inertia of national leaders. And what a savage indictment of those politicians who smugly discuss their own drug use on the radio, yet damn others for doing the same.

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