Drugs policy review

Hypodermic needle and syringe with a pile of heroin on a spoon Image copyright SPL

I was having lunch with a couple of respected figures in the criminal justice world yesterday when the subject of drugs reform came up.

"It is a bit like slavery," one of my lunch-partners said. "The arguments for reform were won decades before it actually happened. What will it take actually to make change happen on drugs?"

Well, this morning news breaks that the influential Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) is to "undertake a comprehensive review of drugs policy in the new year".

They are to ask whether the government's 2010 drug strategy is a "fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights".

The HASC is also going to investigate the criteria used by government to measure the efficacy of its drug policies.

The growing chorus of international establishment figures who argue that prohibition has proved a failed policy appears to have led the committee to ask some searching questions about the effectiveness of Britain's drugs strategy.

Only a fortnight ago the former head of MI5 Lady Manningham-Buller stood up in the House of Lords to bemoan the lack of political debate on drug policy and demand Parliament consider an alternative to staying "on the same well-worn track which will lead to the same dead end".

She was speaking at an event at which members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy were presenting their report to UK parliamentarians.

The commission document starts from the premise that "the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world" and calls for the replacement of "drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights".

Those arguments, it now emerges, are to be investigated by an all-party committee of MPs.

We have been here before. Nine years ago the HASC conducted a similar inquiry which asked The Government's Policy: Is It Working? and concluded that "if there is any single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail".

That committee, while rejecting the idea of legalising or regulating currently illicit drugs in Britain, did recommend "that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma".

Among the signatories was the Conservative Member of Witney, one David Cameron.

It was a shocking recommendation at the time, but I wonder whether a contemporary version of the same committee coming to the same conclusion would prove as controversial.

The mood music today seems rather different. While the coalition government and the official opposition have shown no interest in opening up a debate on drugs reform, it appears the public are beginning to ask questions.

The Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert who sits on the current HASC said this to me this morning: "Public opinion has changed. Lots and lots of people think that the current policy is not working. The mood has changed and there is far more evidence of the effectiveness of alternatives to the current policy."

Mr Huppert is also a leading light on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, but that body is regarded as a committee of like-minded individuals.

The HASC is much more reflective of the variety of opinion in Parliament - a fact that will make its deliberations next year all the more interesting. Might this be the trigger for drug policy reform in Britain - or does the issue, like the drugs themselves, remain too toxic?