Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 15 June 2009

Is public opinion way ahead of MPs on drug policy reform?

I have been an advocate of a more progressive approach to drug policy in this country for a long time. The current laws just aren't working and the fact that there are about 100,000% more heroin users now than in 1971 when the current drug laws came into effect is but one of a myriad of facts that prove this.

However this is one area where politicians are terrified to say anything for fear of being painted as "SOFT ON DRUGS" by the press and their parliamentary opponents who seemingly never fail to oblige whenever one of them does briefly pop their head above the parapet. This all seems to stem from a perception that the public will not stand for any sort of liberalisation. But I wonder if that is the case.

I have noticed a number of times recently when I have heard or seen this issue debated that the majority of people taking part seem to agree that the current system has utterly failed and a significant number seem very open to (or even fully advocating) the idea of liberalisation of the laws. I am talking about looking at the comments posted after articles in newspapers and listening to debates on the radio. I recall one such debate on Victoria Derbyshire's Radio 5 phone in show last year which was ostensibly about the reclassification of Cannabis from class B to class C and virtually every caller said that was a stupid debate, that the real debate should be whether they are legalised and in their view they should. There were numerous different people of different ages in the space of about 20 minutes on the phone in. Something similar happened on an "Any Answers" phone in on Radio 4 last year.

I came across this article today by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, a very well respected journalist who is asking if it is time to seriously discuss legalising drugs. I mention it not so much for the article (which is good and worth reading) but for the comments below it. I have only had time to read about the first 100 or so (out of 400-odd at last count) but they are overwhelmingly in agreement that drugs should be legalised. There are lots of very well thought out and argued reasons for this. I would say 70% or 80% of the comments are in favour.

Now of course this is just a few anecdotal instances I have noted but I think this could be significant. Politicians act as if there is a huge groundswell of feeling against even talking about the potential for reform in this area and I am just not seeing it. This seems to be a classic case of the political and media classes conspiring with each other to keep debate about a particular issue completely under wraps and I cannot for the life of me fathom why this should be.

I accept there are arguments on both sides for this but the argument never seems to be had. When was the last time you heard a senior politicains seriously engage with the issues on this subject? The last time I recall the question being raised on BBC Question Time, Liam Byrne responding for the government came out with a load of nonsense about how ecstacy is dangerous because he is a father or something along those lines. Completely failing to engage with the issue and appealing to emotion, a classic non-argument. The only person on that panel who actually engaged with it was Monty Don, a TV gardener!

I wonder when politicians will realise that public opinion has already moved way outside the confines of the narrow strictures they have imposed upon themselves?


Mark Wadsworth said...

I think 'public opinion' is very much 'drugs are harmful and cause crime so should be even more illegal than they are'.

Facts and logic are lost on these people.

Mark Thompson said...

I did initially post a rather flippant reply but I will try and do better.

There is a strong argument that much of the harm that drugs cause is because they are illegal. Trying to make them "more illegal" presumably by making the penalties more harsh would be completely self-defeating.

Drug problems should be seen as a public health issue and be dealt with accordingly. Similarly why should someone who takes cannabis or ecstacy recreationally, not harming anyone else find themselves on the wrong side of law? Are these drugs really any worse than alcohol?

I don't agree that public opinion is with you on this. Received opinion maybe.

Niklas Smith said...

This seems to be a classic case of the political and media classes conspiring with each other to keep debate about a particular issue completely under wraps and I cannot for the life of me fathom why this should be.

Perhaps it's because politicians like running our lives? I agree with you that there seems to be something of a stich-up going on. There are praiseworthy exceptions, such as the famous Guardian front page about the study that showed that cannibis was a much smaller public health problem than alcohol. The Economist has also stuck its head above the parapet to advocate legalisation more than once, most recently on 5 March this year.

It was actually that Economist issue (there were several articles on drugs in it) that changed my mind about legalisation. Legalising cannibis is a no-brainer if you believe in evidence-based policy or in the harm principle.

One of the most common recent arguments against legalising cannibis has been that it has now become more powerful and is full of dangerous additives. In other words, our political leaders are telling us that it was all right for them to smoke dope when they were rebellious teenagers but it's wrong for today's teens.

In fact this is an argument for legalisation: the state can only enforce quality control if distribution is legal (perhaps through a system of licensed shops). Additionally, separating cannibis distribution from the distribution of other drugs such as crack cocaine (one of the cases where the harm principle can justify a contined ban) could well reduce demand for them.

Niklas Smith said...

Speaking of the Economist on drugs, they were advocating legalisation already in 1989.

Perhaps this is a demonstration of the limitations of the written word in changing minds? Supposedly everyone who is anyone reads The Economist, but that hasn't stopped politicians from covering their ears and ignoring rational argument just like toddlers do.

Jim Jepps said...

Although Mark W is right about parts of the public there is also a large section of the public that is head and shoulders above the hypocritical posturing of the main political parties.

You only have to hear the politicians admitting they once smoked a joint but didn't enjoy it - I suspect large numbers of people would either think 'liar' or 'you're doing it wrong'.

Until the political classes ditch the censorious attitudes around drugs where they are unable to admit even basic and obvious facts we'll never get a decent debate.

Millions of people in the UK have a far more balanced view of drugs than either the tabloids or the parliamentary parties - whether they are the majority or not though I wouldn't like to say

Andy said...

If the LibDems were actually Liberals they would support legalisation or at least decriminalisation. It makes sense and would result in drugs and society being a safer place. The party hypocrisy is further illustrated by their support of draconian legislation regarding smoking. They supported the smoking ban, which is the Nanny state at its most viscious and draconian. There are far less restrictive alternatives,and the so-called evidence about second hand smoke was blindly accepted, as it fits with the real illiberal 'i know whats good for you, better than you do' attitude in a party that wants to give away our freedom and democracy to European bankers. Liberal my arse!