In Westminster, no-one can hear you talk sense – by “Ben Lea”

In Westminster, no-one can hear you talk sense – by “Ben Lea”

Posted On: March 15, 2011
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A critique of last week’s House of Lords debate on whether the Government should call for a review of UK drug policy.

This week’s guest blogger, “Ben Lea”, used to live on a SE London estate blighted by the effects of pushing the drug trade underground. As a teenager and young adult he drank excessively, and performed badly in school and university as a result. In his late 20s he switched to occasional use of ecstasy and LSD, and is now scoring 1st class marks on a challenging postgraduate degree at a leading university.

Like a child with its fingers in its ears saying “la la la, can’t hear you”, the Government response to Lord Norton in the House of Lords debate last Wednesday was sadly typical of the approach we’ve seen from successive governments to the question of drug prohibition. Lord Norton wasn’t even pushing for any particular outcome, he was proposing only that a proper, considered review be undertaken on how effective the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act has or has not been.

In the lead up to the debate, he invited readers of Lords of the Blog to add their input. Once again, we see reasoned arguments from people requesting a review, backed up with evidence, but much of the counter-argument dominated by assertion that criminalisation is right because it’s right.

The Liberal Democrats’ policy, that the current system isn’t working, has obviously been squashed by their majority coalition partner. There was no trace of this line in the government response – a government dominated by the Conservatives, but in this case responding to a Conservative peer’s well-considered request. Ignoring the string of peers from all parties who dominated the debate with overwhelmingly supportive speeches, Baroness Neville-Jones spoke on behalf of the Home Office and delivered a blinkered justification of business-as-usual government policy, based around the “new drugs strategy”, which isn’t new at all: “reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery and supporting people to live a drug-free life.”

So, more of the same then.

Not only that, but Baroness Neville-Jones delivered a breathtakingly blind assessment of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, conveniently whitewashing over its castration by both the current government and the previous Labour administration. Placing all the emphasis on the ACMD, she assured the House that it would be evaluating drug policies, but that a thorough review was not necessary.

That the government should ignore overwhelming cross-party support for a review is staggering. In the face of mounting evidence that the existing approach to drugs is ineffective, expensive and itself potentially causing massive harm to communities both at home and abroad, the fact that they refuse even to assess the evidence in a balanced and independent review is mystifying.

But then, since a review would be assessing the impact of the Misuse of Drugs Act in terms of the stated aims of current policy, which revolve around harm reduction, perhaps they’re scared that a review would leave them no choice but to admit they’ve been wrong for so long. It’s hard to admit you’re wrong, after all.

Or perhaps this isn’t about being wrong: perhaps this is about transparency. If the evidence is mounting against the policy’s effectiveness in harm reduction, then that argument for maintaining the status quo cannot stand up to scrutiny. This scrutiny is already happening in wider society, however, and cannot be ignored forever. Maybe the time is approaching for the government to admit that the policy is based on morality and not harm reduction.