Cannabis reform: what is Blunkett on?

New Labour's drugs policy leaves everybody confused.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

UK home secretary David Blunkett yesterday announced a reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C. But he mixed his messages by also announcing a near tripling of the sentence for those caught dealing the drug.

New Labour is tying itself in knots over drugs. Unless Blunkett expects everybody to grow their own, the attempt to be liberal on consumption and hard on supply defies the laws of the free market. ‘Drugs tsar’ Keith Hellawell compounded Blunkett’s problems by resigning in protest over the new policies.

Drugs reform provides a snapshot of New Labour’s policymaking – suggesting that, despite being a government formed around the principle of pragmatism, it is unable to form policy that works.

There are very good reasons for liberalising drugs laws. Drug use has become so widespread and accepted that it is impossible to enforce existing laws. Over a fifth of young people aged 16 to 29 reported taking cannabis in 2000, and numbers are increasing (1).

Treating cannabis use as a serious offence when it is accepted across society brings the government’s drugs policy into disrepute. It also results in a waste of police resources – each cannabis arrest takes around five hours of police officers’ time and costs £10,000 to take to court, but leads to an average fine of only £46 (2). In practice, police had been turning a blind eye to low-level cannabis use – which became official with the piloting of a caution-only policy in Lambeth, London.

So drugs policy was ripe for reform. How did New Labour make such a mess of it?

The main problem is that the government’s policymaking has been marked by an obsession with the ‘message’ of policy rather than its effect, and a concern to appease groups with different positions. This has left a policy that is confused in its message, and unworkable on the ground.

Blunkett wants to liberalise cannabis laws because they are out of touch and a burden for the police. But he doesn’t want to look ‘soft’ on drugs, which might alienate Middle England and the Daily Mail brigade. In a leaked letter to deputy prime minister John Prescott, he wrote: ‘It is not intended that re-classification should detract in any way from the simple message that all controlled drugs including cannabis are harmful…and no one should take them.’ (3) Blunkett tried to hammer this massage home when he announced the policy changes in the House of Commons yesterday: ‘The message is clear. Drugs are dangerous.’

To send a ‘hard’ message, he has proposed increasing the sentence for dealing cannabis from five to 14 years. This makes cannabis dealing as serious as aggravated rape or armed robbery, at the same time that personal use is put on a par with anti-depressants and steroids.

Another ‘hard’ message is the proposal to allow arrest for the offence of ‘aggravated’ cannabis use – examples of this include smoking near a school, or blowing smoke in a police officer’s face. Deciding whether or not a person is smoking in an aggravating way obviously leaves a lot to the police officer’s discretion – and chief police officers have expressed concern about the confusion this policy could cause on the ground (4).

Finally, Blunkett has emphasised that these changes draw a line between cannabis, which will be treated leniently, and drugs like cocaine and ecstasy, which will not. In his letter to Prescott, Blunkett wrote that: ‘The change [in classification] will make clearer the distinction between cannabis and Class A drugs like heroin and cocaine.’ In his speech to the House of Commons, he said: ‘Class A drugs are the scourge of our time, and are potential killers.’

But this line between cannabis and the rest does not make any sense. Ecstasy use is almost as prevalent as cannabis: around 2million clubbers are thought to be regular users of ecstasy, and 100million ecstasy pills are reportedly consumed in Britain each year (5). Blunkett’s own commission recommended the downgrading of ecstasy for these reasons, but he has stood firm.

Cocaine has become widely used as the drug of choice among upper-middle-class youth. And the policy approach to heroin is now fairly pragmatic: addicts are prescribed the heroin substitute methadone on prescription, and there is some support for ‘shooting galleries’ where addicts can inject heroin safely (an experiment that has been tried in Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Spain).

To make matters worse, it is unclear when exactly Blunkett’s new policies will come into force. The increase in sentence for dealers requires changes in the law, which will not be introduced until the next parliament. In the meantime, polices forces are likely to vary in their strategy towards cannabis, meaning that soft drug users will be dealt with differently in different parts of the country.

But although Labour is confused, the Tories don’t have a drugs policy either. Their leader Iain Duncan Smith reportedly formulated his policy after residents in Brixton told him of the increase in drug dealing since cannabis policy was relaxed. His visit to Brixton on 9 July 2002, with shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin (who supported liberalisation a year ago (6)), looked like a cheap political stunt.

Admittedly, this is not an easy time to make a drugs policy. In a society when personal satisfaction and consumption are elevated above all, there can be little moral outrage about drugtaking. Restraint and responsibility, necessary to abstain, are no longer thought virtuous.

Indeed, individual responsibility is no longer really thought possible. This is why, far from condemning individuals for their waywardness, hard drugs policy is increasingly therapeutic – treating users as patients who need protecting from their addiction, rather than individuals who should be punished. The focus is less on right and wrong than on the harm that drugs cause, and drugs policy is a series of strategies for limiting and preventing this harm. In this climate, attempts to draw the line and send tough signals can be little more than gestures.

Still, New Labour is making the worst of a difficult situation. Its indecision and desire to please every group will guarantee years of to-ing and fro-ing on the drugs issue, and is likely to spawn an even bigger mass of contradictory measures.

As the song says, the drugs don’t work – and the drugs policy won’t either.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) ‘The government’s drugs policy: is it working?’, Select Committee on Home Affairs – Third report

(2) Drugs bust-up at the Met, Guardian, 25 November 2001

(3) Drugs leak sows policy confusion, Observer, 7 July 2002

(4) Police fear muddle over cannabis laws, Guardian, 10 July 2002

(5) Safety on the dancefloor, BBC News, 7 March 2002

(6) Labour Party Press Release, 9 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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