Thursday, 14 August 2008
Eight years ago, I left my civil service job as director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-Ordination Unit. I went partly because I was sick of having to implement policies that I knew, and my political masters knew, were unsupported by evidence. Yesterday, after a surreal flurry of media requests referring to a blog I wrote that questioned the wisdom of the UK's drug policies, I found myself in the thick of the debate again, and I was sorry to discover that the terms hadn't changed a bit.
I was being interviewed on the BBC World Service, and after I tried to explain why I believe that drugs should be decriminalised, the person representing the other side of the argument pointed out that drugs are terrible, that they destroy lives. Now, I am a deeply boring, undruggy person myself, and I think the world would be a better place without drugs. But I think that we must live in the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. And so my answer was, yes, I know that drugs are terrible. I'm not saying that drugs should be decriminalised because it would be fun if we could all get stoned with impunity. I'm saying that we've tried minimising harm through a draconian legal policy. It is now clear that enforcement and supply-side interventions are largely pointless. They haven't worked. There is evidence that this works.
Unfortunately, evidence is still not a major component in our policy. Take cannabis. When I was in the Anti-Drug Unit, the moves towards making it a class C drug began, and I hoped that our position on drugs was finally moving in a rational direction. But then Gordon Brown ignored his scientific advisers to make it a class B again. It was a decision that pandered to the instincts of the tabloids, and it made no sense whatsoever.