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It’s time to use evidence not knee-jerks in deciding Britain’s drugs policy

Last week the House of Commons had an important debate on UK drugs policy. The speeches suggested that, slowly, politicians are inching towards a reform of legislation which more closely resembles the views of the general public and informed scientific opinion. For instance a recent YouGov poll for the Sun Newspaper revealed (to the papers evident surprise) that most Britons believe the war on drugs can never be won. Some 71% of those surveyed said the war had failed, while 51% said it will always be doomed. And crucially the survey found 65% supported a review of drugs policy.

Yet for decades drugs policy had been the “third rail” of British politics. Political leaders on both sides believed “You touch it and you die”. So politicians doggedly refused to accept scientific advice on the subject. In 2008 a Labour government reclassified cannabis from Class C to Class B against the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. And in 2009 the Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson actually sacked Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Committee because he had the temerity to suggest that illicit drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they caused. And the unfortunate Professor Nutt went on to point out that alcohol and tobacco actually caused more harm than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis. That was enough for Alan Johnson. When it comes to drugs, evidence based policy making goes out of the window and Professor Nutt was effectively told not to slam the door on his way out.

Most recently the coalition government finally published a report on drugs this week, which it had sat on for three months The report examined the drugs policies of thirteen countries; from the zero-tolerant Japanese approach at one end to the more accommodating policy of Portugal, which treats the possession and personal use of drugs as essentially a health issue rather than a crime. The report concluded that there is ‘no obvious relationship’ between tough laws that criminalize drug use and the actual level of use. This runs contrary to the policies of both Labour and the Conservatives since the war, so it is no surprise that the government was anxious to suppress it.

A notable aspect of the debate this week was that the majority of speakers called for a review of UK Drugs policy. Also interesting was the number of Conservative MP’s who expressed some sympathy with this view. They included: Crispin Blunt MP, Robert Syms MP, Zac Goldsmith MP, former Tory Cabinet minister Peter Lilley MP, former army officer Bob Stewart MP and former Crown Court recorder Stephen Philips MP. Something is clearly moving in middle England.

Nobody can pre-judge the conclusions of any review of drugs policy. But the time has come for an evidence based approach, not knee jerk responses based on what Westminster politicians believe that the tabloid press will accept.

Image credit: “When in Amsterdam…”  by miss.libertine 


  1. swatantra says:

    Itsnot a question of evidence but of right and wrong. And its clear that taking receational drugs is amoral.

    1. swatantra says:

      In fact there is a magic remedy for depression and feeling out of sorts, and that is exercise: go for a good run, and get that black dog out of your system, and get a good nights sleep.

      1. Robert says:


  2. At least, and at last, the debate on drugs is now open in earnest.

    We need a single category of illegal drug, with a crackdown on the possession of drugs, including a mandatory sentence of three months for a second offence, six months for a third offence, one year for a fourth offence, and so on.

    There cannot be a “free” market, but not in drugs (or prostitution, or pornography).

    Therefore, there cannot, there must not, be a “free” market.

  3. John. Reid says:

    There’s a difference between decriminalising, and legalising, the idea we have tough laws fro drug use, is silly, a£200 fine for a wrap of pcke, a caution for about 10 cannabis joints being found, even dealing class A results in a fine and community service, or smuggling a lot or scstacy from abroad can result in a couple of years inside,

    Whether drug addicts are victims to be helped is one thing, but the damage Skunk does to the brain now, is a lot worse than weed was 30 yrs ago.

  4. Robert says:

    Ok then why not have the same for all crimes steal a car once get a warning, do it twice get a jail term, do it three times get 15 years . lets move further towards the American model of justice, sadly it done sod all to cut drugs in America.

    Not forgetting when in jail your given your habit free of charge and no you cannot just stop it..

    Drugs have been around in one shape or another for a very long time and when we have period like this with society going through period of poverty it will go up more.

    I do not know the answer I do know locking up people is not the answer not for using drugs for god sake, locking up dealers well maybe but for every one you lock up ten people will take their places it pays to sell drugs.

    I do not know maybe removing the NHS would be a start but then you would have to have drink as well, then of course in the end you have to pick up the pieces unless your going to go down the Hitler route.

    Education education education, less poverty may be more and more sports and recreation for free, giving people the money to have a decent life.

    But it seems if you have to much money then drugs is a way out.

    I do not have the answer nobody does otherwise we’d not have a drug issues.

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