Perhaps the only thing more mind-bending than drugs is the politics of drugs.
The latest debate has been sparked by the release of the Home Office’s long-awaited reports into drug policy, which effectively concluded that the War on Drugs isn’t working, and relaxing the law would not increase the number of addicts. It’s a rare example of humans being defeated in a war against inanimate objects.
Politically, there are a number of factors at play:
- Westminster taboo. It’s de rigeur for party leaders to officially oppose any form of relaxation or legalisation of any controlled substances, regardless of evidence. David Cameron spoke out radically against the current system shortly before he was elected leader, only to shift position entirely once he found himself in a position of responsibility. Politicians are convinced they would be crucified by the media and/or the electorate if they were to question the supposed consensus.
- Public opinion is changing, though… A YouGov poll for The Sun today found that 71 per cent think the War on Drugs has failed, 58 per cent want a trial of the Portuguese model and for the first time a higher proportion of voters would be more likely to vote for a party which promised to review the law (28 per cent) than would be less likely to do so (17 per cent). We haven’t yet seen the full tables to see if there are splits by party but a similar YouGov poll in 2012 found majority support for reform among the voters of all parties. That’s a long way from supporting full legalisation or a free-for-all (neither I nor most people would subscribe to that approach) but it’s a sizeable change to opinion only a couple of decades ago.
- …as is media opinion. In case it didn’t stand out enough in the previous paragraph, The Sun is now open-minded on the topic. Today’s editorial says: ‘Whether or not drugs laws should be relaxed, one thing is now clear. A vast majority — 71 per cent — think the War On Drugs has failed. That means we can’t just carry on with the status quo. Some say we don’t properly enforce the laws. Others say their whole basis is misconceived. Something has to change.’ That’s a remarkable shift from a paper that would once have torn anyone advocating such a position to shreds – the issue is certainly more open than it has ever been. Politicians may be living in fear of a wrath that no longer exists.
- The current system works for no-one (bar criminals). It’s hard to see who might be satisfied by the current arrangement beyond the organised criminals who make a fortune from a failing system. Everyone else – from liberalisers right through to Peter Hitchens (who believes the fault is that the War on Drugs is not being sufficiently hard-fought) – has good reason to want a change of some sort.
- There is a law and order case for reform, too. Regardless of your views on drug use, two things are clear about the policing of the current law. The first is that it consumes large amounts of resources with little to no practical benefit, as implied by the Home Office’s findings. A growing number of MPs are of the opinion that money could be better-spent on education about the risks of drugs. Second, the knock-on effects on popular respect for the law are vast. When the law is widely and routinely broken and enforcement is failing, we are teaching millions of people that the law is an ass. Other elements of law and order policy suffer because of this failure – it isn’t a stand-alone issue.
- It may be a case of waiting for the USA. The global leader in the War on Drugs is America – they spend a fortune on the fight, and they have encouraged other countries including our own to share their stance. It may not be feasible for Westminster to move its policy until its partner in Washington does so. But with various American states legalising cannabis, for example, that move may be on the way.
All in all it’s a fascinating state of affairs for any observer, regardless of their opinion on the topic. The political basis for our current law – fear of angry voters or vituperative newspapers, and support for international partners – appears to be evaporating. But the law itself lives on, supported in part by Westminster’s everlasting, slow slog to catch up with the world outside. How long will it last?