The UK’s evidence-based drugs problem

The political class’ addiction to evidence and experts has come back to befuddle it on the terrain of drugs legislation.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Between 1971, when Edward Heath’s Tory government passed the Misuse of Drugs Act, and 2004, when New Labour started fiddling around with the classification system, the British state’s line on which drugs were illegal was pretty consistent. Yet in recent years, this legislative stance appears to be unravelling. Government-appointed drugs experts openly criticise government drugs policy, as Professor David Nutt famously did in 2009; and ministers and MPs are all too willing to express doubts about the wisdom of prohibiting certain substances, as Nutt’s nemesis, former home secretary Jacqui Smith, did earlier this year.

Now it is the turn of the deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to come out as a waverer on existing drugs legislation. Commenting on the ease with which young people can obtain drugs, especially cannabis, Clegg said: ‘I think those facts suggest […] we should also be open-minded enough to look at whatever alternative approaches help us help those children more effectively in the future.’ Clegg’s comments came on the back of a Home Affairs Select Committee report on existing drugs policy that asserted that not only was the state failing to deal with dealers or focus on users, but that it should also look to other countries with less punitive drug legislation for a way forward: ‘Following the legalisation of marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado and the proposed state monopoly of cannabis production and sale in Uruguay’, the report concluded, ‘we recommend that the government fund a detailed research project [a Royal Commission] to monitor the effects of each legalisation system to measure the effectiveness of each and the overall costs and benefits of cannabis legalisation’.

Prime minister David Cameron responded to calls for a Royal Commission dismissively: ‘Drug usage is at its lowest level since records began and people going into treatment today are far more likely to free themselves from dependency than ever before. We will respond to the report more fully in due course.’ But the clamour for something to be done about doing something on drugs, both within and without the government, is growing.

Yet before free-wheeling weedsters get too excited (if such a thing is possible), the calls for a re-evaluation of existing drugs legislation – indeed, for its effective relaxation – are not informed by some inchoate liberal impulse. That is, the state’s confusion is not the product of some MPs’ and ministers’ sudden sensitivity to the need for individual freedom (including the freedom to enjoy a smoke). You need only look at the government’s determination to stigmatise and regulate legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco to realise that our freedom to do as we wish with our bodies is in fact held in historically low esteem. Until recently, Clegg himself had even been at the vanguard of the all-too-busy bodies demanding a minimum price for booze. As he said in 2008: ‘The immediate effect of below-cost alcohol is to tempt people to buy a lot more alcohol than would otherwise be the case… Alcohol-related violence, disorder and illness is now one of the biggest problems we face. If supermarkets are not prepared to act responsibly, it is time they are forced to do so.’

So if it’s not old-fashioned liberalism, or even new-fangled permissiveness, driving the questioning of drugs policy, what is it? In terms of Clegg’s latest face-off with his Tory superior Cameron, party-political opportunism is no doubt involved. For Clegg, criticising the widely criticised – in this case, existing drugs legislation – must seem like a good, cheap way of putting some not-so-clear water between the Lib Dems and their coalition partners, the Conservatives. More importantly, the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report allows Clegg recourse to the contemporary politician’s policy justification of choice – an ‘evidence base’. Hence last week, when Clegg was asked if he was being soft on drugs, he said: ‘There’s nothing hard about turning your back against the evidence.’

This is key. What has brought the issue of drugs legislation into the political limelight in recent years, what has made the state’s stance on drugs so incoherent, has been the internal dynamic of evidence-based policymaking, not the external problem of drugs.

In short, the historical crisis of legitimacy, the lack of popular support and engagement, which has been eating away at the political class for a good few years now, has increasingly led to its members seeking authority for decisions and policy, not from the people, but from a newly formed stratum of experts and expert-led bodies and charities. (If the involvement of the people is sought, it is through the most specious and pointless forms of consultation, as Luke Gittos notes on spiked today.) But this has given rise to a new source of conflict, too, one which has become most apparent on the knotted terrain of drugs legislation. That’s because the evidence such as it is (efficacy, the dubious concept of harm, etc) has frequently contradicted the direction of policymaking, and the experts, now emboldened and empowered, have revolted. So while successive governments have not really wanted to relax drugs legislation, the heavy political investment in evidence-based policymaking constantly undermines their position.

What needs to be questioned in all this, to use the words of a recent report from the UK Drug Policy Commission, is precisely the ‘commitment to the use of evidence to inform which policies are adopted’. For some, of course, expert-driven policymaking looks eminently sensible. As one Guardian columnist writes: ‘I fail to see the danger in a Royal Commission to examine the evidence, as long as its members are substantial and expert people across a range of disciplines, the kind who are not bullied by governments or the Daily Mail, nor swayed by what fashionable opinion says in Hampstead or Hackney.’ And there lies the problem. Evidence-based policymaking insulates decision-makers from the views and opinions of those, be they Daily Mail readers or Hackney hipsters, in whose name they legislate. It is a thoroughly undemocratic tendency. Authority rests not in the electoral mandate of the populace, but in the whims and whines of a tiny clutch of experts.

At its heart, the debate over whether to legalise drugs or not shouldn’t really have anything to do with any putative evidence. It is a moral and political question. It is about what kind of society we want to live in, whether it’s one in which people ought to be free to make judgements about how best to live their lives, or whether they ought not to be. When it comes to political and moral questions, the evidence can tell us very little.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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