HASC, Clegg and drug policy reform

The publication of the Home Affairs Select Committee report on drug policy, followed by Nick Clegg’s intervention on the matter, raised a huge amount of interest in the field, prompting a flurry of media appearances, tweets, blogs and the like. My own response was more muted than all that and I couldn’t think of anything very constructive to say about it. And then I remembered a ‘Dear Minister…’ letter I was invited to write for Criminal Justice Matters in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, and realised this still pretty much said it all for me. So, I’ve reproduced it below…

 ‘What is to be done?’ Lenin once famously asked in his blueprint for a revolution. Some of this radical spirit will be needed by the new government if it is to get to grips with a key challenge for the coming decade: the problem of alcohol and other drugs.

 A Saturday-night tour of any police station or hospital A&E department teaches us a sharp lesson about the domestic failures of our current approach; whilst the violence and corruption in places like Afghanistan and Colombia remind us that this is a problem with a global span. How have we got things so wrong? And how can we put them right?

 There is no easy answer. We know that the old solutions do not work. Any politician who claims that the way forward lies in reviewing drug classifications or tightening supply controls or any of the other stock responses, is either misguided or dishonest. We desperately need fresh thinking.

 This will be difficult. It involves removing the comfort blanket of some of our moral, cultural and political certainties. Specifically, three habits of thought need to be overturned before we can make progress:

 1)      We must look beyond the law. Regulation scholars have taught us that the law is not the only game in town when it comes to regulating markets and human behaviour. The construction of a new legal framework is not a magic bullet.

2)      We must look beyond the state. State institutions, and supranational bodies like the UN, are only one set of actors in the field, and it is myopic to see them as the sole or even primary agencies involved.

3)      We must have an integrated approach. We should not assume that existing legal categorisations reflect actual differences between substances.

 The new government has the opportunity to be in the vanguard of a radical new approach. Will it have the courage and imagination to start a revolution?


Postscript. Two further thoughts about HASC/Clegg. First, calls for a Royal Commission are misguided, in my view. What is it about drug policy that we don’t already know? A Royal Commission would simply be an elaborate and expensive way of kicking the issue into the long grass. Second, a few days after Clegg’s statement, I heard a political commentator describing how the new LibDem political strategy involves disagreeing with their coalition partners as often as possible, as part of an attempt to avoid electoral meltdown in 2015. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Clegg’s intervention on drug policy is driven by rather more calculating and self-interested motives than some have suggested.


About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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