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Thursday, December 16, 2010 

A proper, rational debate on drug policy is exactly what we can't have.

Did anyone actually know that Bob Ainsworth was once drugs minister, or more accurately, a under-secretary at the Home Office? I sure as hell didn't. Admittedly, it was in the far off mists of Labour's second term, between 2001 and 2003, when there were more immediately pressing issues than the government's drug policy, yet I don't think anyone really remembered until he reminded everyone today in the most praiseworthy of circumstances.

Whether Ainsworth is the most senior former minister to come out publicly and call for the decriminalisation of all drugs (he hasn't called for the legalisation of heroin for example, legalisation and decriminalisation often being confused when they are completely separate proposals) certainly is debatable. Best known for his recent stint as defence secretary, he's probably held the highest office of state, but is most likely less well known than either Mo Mowlam, who called for legalisation in 2002, or Clare Short, whom I'm fairly certain has also done so although I can't find any authoritative sources backing that up. The real point is more that Ainsworth, probably about as a traditional Labour MP as you could find, has become convinced of the need to end drug prohibition.

Equally uncertain is Professor David Nutt's claim that most politicians are of the same view and are simply too terrified of the potential implications and difficulties of altering almost 40 years of successive government drug policy is much harder to tell. Certainly, the reasons for not doing so could hardly be more vividly shown than by the media coverage of recent years, firstly over the downgrading of cannabis to a Class C substance and the subsequent, successful campaign for it be made Class B again, with not just the likes of the Daily Mail scaremongering over the supposed increased potency of the drug and link with schizophrenia but the broadsheet press also joining in, and secondly this year's short-lived moral panic over meow meow, with apparently almost every schoolchild in the country taking it, necessitating an instant ban as advocated by the Sun. If anything, it's the few journalists that are convinced they're reflecting the views of their readership that are now more opposed to reform than most politicians are, who tend to be much better briefed and acquainted with the consequences of prohibition, not to mention the futility of the revolving-door that exists in the criminal justice system as a direct result of addiction and desperation.

Again, while polls have shown public support for a fairly draconian drug prohibition policy, this is partially the result of ignorance and press coverage, not to mention the role of government in promoting the myth that illegal drugs are inherently dangerous regardless of how and when they're taken. It's also increasingly clear that attitudes towards drugs are generational, with most boomers, despite having been those who first most widely used the now illegal substances being in favour of their current legal status. Few younger people hold the same views, although whether they will turn against liberalisation as they age in a similar fashion remains to be seen. The fact is though that most political discussion of drugs, especially those less harmful, has generally moved on from condemnation and bothering to argue that the use of them in itself a very bad thing to the even more pathetic suggestion that discussing legalisation or decriminalisation in itself is unhelpful because it sends the "wrong message". This was basically the line taken by the government when it ignored the advice of the ACMD to downgrade Ecstasy to Class C, and is also exactly what was spouted today by Ed Miliband when asked his opinion of Ainsworth's view.

The hypocrisy of this is especially apparent when anonymous briefings are given rubbishing Ainsworth for so much as raising the point while the party itself welcomes him for starting a debate, as Hopi Sen does here. It's impossible to have a debate when politicians themselves refuse to consider any alternative to the current policy, which is what both Conservative and Labour spokesmen did today without addressing any of the actual wider points he made, or indeed misrepresenting them as James Brokenshire did.

One of those was that the new government strategy on drugs announced last week wasn't different from what had gone before as claimed except in that it was worse. Rather than reducing harm, which has been the mantra ever since the Misuse of Drugs Act was first passed, the new strategy is built around the three themes of reducing demand, which no government has ever succeeded in doing through criminalisation, restricting supply, which is one of the worst things you can possibly do as it increases prices, leading to more acquisitive crime and to those addicted becoming more desperate and so likely to cause even more damage to themselves and those around them by looking for alternatives, and finally building recovery, which is made all the more difficult by treating addicts as criminals instead of needing help. The current government then doesn't just want to avoid a debate on ending the drugs war, it wants to intensify it. When it's the most unusual suspects calling for an end to the status quo, we might finally be able to start building an effective opposition to just those plans.

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