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Wednesday 19 June 2019

tortoise take • opinion

Britain’s dumb war

The country’s leadership race has exposed its muddled drugs laws. The winner must fix them

By Peter Hoskin

The search for Britain’s next prime minister has focused less on the candidates’ policymaking and more on their drug-taking. It began with Rory Stewart’s admission that he had puffed on an opium pipe, and continued with the revelation that Michael Gove had snorted cocaine in his days as a journalist. Factor in the coke-confession that Boris Johnson made over a decade ago – “I tried it at university and I remember it vividly” – and three of the last five candidates have confessed to using illegal Class-A drugs, a much higher proportion than among the general population.

If this seems like a peculiar state of affairs – men vying to be the chief law-framer of a land where they have, without genuine consequence, broken laws – then that’s because it is. British drugs policy has, for decades, been varying degrees of hypocritical, muddled and ineffectual. Billions of taxpayer-pounds have been spent on a war that has done more to restrict the marketplace for soft drugs such as cannabis (which is now less popular and slightly more expensive than it used to be) than for harder drugs such as cocaine (which is cheaper and, if anything, more widespread).

Change is coming, but slowly and sporadically – and this just throws up new contradictions. While the police are less and less inclined to lock people away for cannabis possession, it remains true that cannabis is an illegal Class-B drug, officially to be dealt with more severely than Class-C drugs. And while cannabis was made available on the NHS last year, the small print means that only a fractionally small number of people have been able to access it. In the meantime, the UK is the biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis in the world; the wholesale retailer for other nation’s health systems.

Britain’s stumbling approach to drugs contrasts with the clear direction of travel elsewhere. In the US, 33 states have now legalised cannabis for medicinal purposes. Eleven of them have legalised it for recreational purposes, too. America is becoming a giant test bed for more lenient drugs policies.

And the results of those tests? In some cases, it is too early to say. In others, the outcomes are somewhere between mixed and positive. Colorado, which legalised cannabis for medical use in 2000 and for recreational use in 2012, has not really seen an increase in cannabis-related crime; has experienced a steady rise in hospitalisations; has not recorded a rise in youth usage; and, as revealed this week, has made over a billion tax dollars. That money is being put into education and health programs.

“Broadly speaking, the same people smoke pot in California as did before [legalisation]. The difference is in the absence of this mild hysteria on the criminal fringe of it.”

Sir Simon Jenkins, speaking at a recent Tortoise ThinkIn

“Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs — and that’s despite surveys showing that black people are less likely to use drugs. They are 12 times more likely to be sentenced for cannabis possession.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, speaking at a recent Tortoise ThinkIn

Britain needs a drugs policy with a purpose and driven by science; instead of a one with a mix of purposes, mostly driven by emotion. Its politicians could start by properly legalising cannabis for medical purposes, and then giving consideration to legalising it entirely. This single drug, relatively harmless when compared to alcohol, has accounted for too much police time and public money over the past few decades. It stands in the way of the next step: an official case-by-case analysis of whether other drugs should be decriminalised or perhaps even legalised.

The climate looks increasingly favourable. The newspapers are less sensationalist on the subject than they used to be, and are less influential in any case. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform is preparing to publish a report next week, which is expected to call for a full examination of the costs and benefits of continued prohibition, with an eye on the US experience. And the next prime minister will (probably) have taken Class-A substances in the past. Let a grown-up conversation about drugs be one of the legacies of his election.