Thursday, 5 July 2012

May, Milliband and Clarke talk drugs as Lib Dems conspicuously silent.

In the last couple of weeks three major UK political figures have spoken about drugs and drug policy for a variety of reasons. It will not come as a surprise that they have demonstrated hypocrisy, ignorance and an irresponsibly casual disregard for evidence and expertise. What has been disappointing is the complete lack of any Liberal Democrat voices presenting the counter-arguments, highlighting the hypocrisy, and stressing the importance of evidence in policy-making.

The first to speak was Theresa May, responding to the advice of Les Iversen, the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor Iversen was appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee drugs enquiry and suggesting lesser use of criminal penalties for drug possession and greater use of administrative penalties like the removal of a driving license or an obligatory education scheme. Theresa May's response was quick but ill-considered: 
"I have a very tough view on drugs. That view is informed by people I speak to who have seen the damage the drugs have done to people in their family," she said at a lunch for journalists at Westminster. "I think there are far too many people who think drugs is something you can do without it having an impact, but it does have an impact."
There are a few things that this response implies. Clearly she believes that the ACMD do not wish to restrict the harms caused by drugs to society despite the fact this is clearly part of their remit. She also implies the ACMD don't regard drugs as having an impact on the people who use them, which is again patently absurd and I'd imagine rather insulting. Finally she asserts that her second hand experience of drug use anecdotes somehow trumps the careful deliberations of a council of drug experts. 

Imagine a government-appointed panel of medical experts presenting a recommendation to a health minister on reducing the harms to society from cancer. If the minister was to reject those recommendations out of hand citing his or her second hand knowledge of people who have suffered from cancer, people would have no doubt about their startling incompetence. Why is drug policy different?

The second figure to speak was Ed Milliband, defending the shadow business secretary - Chukka Umunna - after he admitted using cannabis in his youth. 
Ed stated ""I think everybody is entitled to a past, and a youthful past if you like, before they go into public life,"

If everyone is entitled to a youthful (drug-using) past, how is it justifiable to criminalise people for living a "youthful" present. Umunna is just the latest in a very long list of politicians that have confessed to past drug use. Perhaps the politicians are so relaxed about criminalising users because it is so disproportionately young people who are black and poor whose lives are blighted by being caught and punished. The nocturnal habits of the middle class students most likely to become future politicians are quite rightly not a priority for law enforcement. If a conviction does disrupt the life of a middle class student, they will of course be less likely to find themselves in employment, never mind political office, so will have lost their chance to affect the law.

The third and most significant contribution came from Ken Clarke in his own evidence session at the HASC drugs enquiry on Tuesday. His recognition - the first such by a government minister - that the war on drugs in the UK has "plainly failed" was refreshingly frank, and his support for evidence-based policy encouraging Sadly, when decriminalisation was presented as a potential solution he chose not to talk about evidence but about his personal view that the loss of the deterrent effect of risk of arrest and criminal sanction would be too great. If he were only to examine the evidence for such an effect he would find it very weak indeed, and certainly not strong enough to shut down open consideration and debate of the topic.

What has disappointed me most though about the last couple of weeks has not been what has been said but what hasn't, and who hasn't entered into the debate. The Liberal Democrats are part of this coalition government, but yet Theresa May and Ken Clarke are speaking for a government which will not change the laws on drugs (except presumably to make them 'tougher' around legal highs for example). 

Why are our senior politicians silent? I picked up a potential clue the other day while being quite bemused by the Lib Dem response to Cameron's proposed welfare reforms. The position stated by Clegg and Alexander was that they were "relaxed" about the proposals. This shocked me, not just because the welfare reforms proposed were utterly repulsive to me, but because that was exactly the word used to express the leadership's feelings about the drug policy motion that was passed near unanimously by conference last year. Can they really have the same attitude towards borderline evil welfare reforms and our party's new drug policy?

A few days later it dawned on me how these policy areas could both provoke "relaxed" attitudes. They are both policy areas in which the polls might tell the leadership that what they believe is unpopular. They are relaxed about the proposed welfare reforms because they don't feel it would be politically wise to call them simply awful. Polls tell them the public like them. They are relaxed about the party's drug policy, not because they disagree with it, but because they don't feel it would politically help them to admit that they agree with it wholeheartedly. 

Cameron, May and Clarke go unchallenged because the party leadership have decided they're going to do the easy thing, not the right thing, the exact opposite course to what was promised in Clegg's conference speech last year. This analysis fits in with the hints that Liberal Democrats are going to spend the rest of this parliament bringing absolutely nothing new to the cabinet table. I have heard there is a feeling that having policy proposals knocked back by the Tories will make us look weak, leaving me to presume that our role will just be trying to stop the Tories doing their worst. So, rather than establish our principles as an independent party over the next three years, in the eyes of the public we'll instead be morphing into the whingeing liberal wing of the Tory party. 

Now that's weak.

The advice of our PR "gurus", timidity of our leaders, or both is removing all the risk, passion and honesty from our politics, and rapidly diminishing the prospect of us being once again respected and favoured by the electorate.


Anonymous said...

Tom Brake is notoriously unreliable and prone to populist authoritarianism on this and other issues. Has this struck again?

LEAP UK said...

Very good post.

I think things are getting increasingly frayed, and no answers, strategies or moves are being made.

It would be nice to have a Royal Commission on drug policy, there seems to be more wiggle room in the Lords to address the evidence over soundbites.

Phil Walsh said...

The simple truth that none of our politicians will admit to is this. The 'War on some people who take some drugs' is about building the infer structure of the state, Police, Prisons, and Criminal Justice Systems and always have been. Legalise drugs and we could cut the numbers needed in ALL the above. The question then is how does the state police times of civil unrest, and where do we put the rioters. The state wants to fill our prisons with pointless prisoners to keep the numbers high. These people can be released with little harm to society, if and when the state needs the places for 'political's' when the time comes.
Do not hold out for legalisation the government have no intention of leaving the nation without enough police, Judges, prosecutors and Prisons to keep the population in its place, when the s**t hits the fan and the population stands up and demands changes in the structure of our society, that benefit the people as opposed to politicians and the industrialists they protect and run the nation for the benefit of!.