Cowardice has prevented successive governments from reforming the UK's illiberal and malfunctioning drugs laws - this was the theme of Ewan Hoyle's outstanding speech to the Liberal Democrat conference last Sunday, in which he moved a motion committing the party to an independent review of current drugs law and policy. Ewan's speech and entire debate - conducted in a heart-warming and mature manner without hysteria and hyperbole - is available here and is well worth watching.
Ewan's motion (full text here) exemplified the sort of calm and rational approach to the harms cause by drugs that is required if any government is to even consider reforming its stance. Usually the national discourse on the matter is far more polarised and nasty; pro-prohibitionists argue for ever-tougher punishments for those who use drugs, painting those who back a more evidence-based approach as crazy crack-pushing pot-smoking lunatics.
Citing evidence from well-regarded international studies on drug harms, Ewan's motion began by dispelling the widely-held belief that push for decriminalisation is a mechanism to extend the availability of currently illicit drugs as they are 'a good thing.' On the contrary, by stating clearly that drug use is in itself harmful to both the individual user and the community they live in, the motion sets up a welcome premise - that it is precisely because of the harms that drugs cause that far-reaching policy reform is required.
This is because alongside the incontrovertible evidence that drug use causes health-related, economic and societal harms, there is also robust evidence that the very policies and laws in place to tackle these harms are themselves harmful. This is the argument I began my own speech with, in moving an amendment to the motion that sought to emphasise the importance of independent scientific advice when formulating drugs policy (you can see my speech, following on from Adam Corlett's contribution, here and read the text here).
The disgraceful sacking of Prof. David Nutt as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by the previous Labour government marked the nadir in the relationship between that administration and its scientific advisers in relation to drugs policy. Labour, and the Conservatives before them, had for decades summarily ignored robust scientific evidence on drug harms in favour of populist appeasement of tabloid headline-writers. They also systematically ignored evidence of the harms that the failed prohibitionist 'War on Drugs' was causing, including the needless fostering of a gang culture that manifested itself so violently on British streets this summer. This has lead to the absurd situation where drugs are classified according to the arbitrary whims of Ministers, not to mention those of the fear-mongering press that continues to moralise about the harms of drugs whilst undermining any evidence-based attempts at curbing those same harms.
My amendment called for the restoration of the link between government drugs policy and clinical, scientific and social scientific evidence of the harms caused by drugs and by current drugs policy. This should be achieved, I argued, by ensuring that the ACMD
retain a majority of independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership and no changes to drug laws be made without receiving its advice as per the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.A simple enough call, but one that previous administrations failed to uphold, with frankly disastrous consequences. It is a damning indictment of the way that drugs have been discussed in our society over the past 30 years or so that Ewan's call for a full impact assessment of current policy, coupled with an insistence on a solid evidence base, could be considered radical at all - and yet here we are, the first and possibly only party of government to commit to such.
It's crucial that if we are to leave behind the failed drugs policies of the past we must learn from established examples abroad and from clear-cut scientific studies - and there's little doubt that both are only feasible if they're assessed and implemented using reliable and independent advice from those who 'know their onions,' so to speak. For any clinician, scientist or social scientist to be confident that their advice will be taken seriously, that policy will be based on their recommendations and that they won't be silenced, sidelined or sacked for communicating inconvenient truths, it's vital that the Coalition agrees to the evidence-based review of drugs law that this motion as amended calls for - the debate the Lib Dems had is a huge step along the way, here's hoping we see such a review sooner rather than later.