I feel sorry for the Academic Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It’s this panel of drug experts’ task to try and inject some sense into our country’s failing drug policy. Sadly, in the latter years of New Labour’s reign, it became the default option to ignore their advice on drug classification. On magic mushrooms, then on cannabis and then again on ecstasy, Labour couldn’t resist ignoring the ACMD, opting instead for populist posturing in an attempt to appear ‘tough’.
The Labour government’s unscientific urges on drug classification were deeply frustrating to Liberal Democrats, and this led us to a 2010 manifesto commitment to “always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice”. It’s now time for us to step up to the mark.
On Wednesday, the ACMD published a report on khat, a currently-legal leaf that induces a mild stimulant effect when chewed, and has strong cultural bonds with the Somali community in Britain. Since there is no evidence that khat causes any significant harm, the ACMD has recommended that the government refrains from prohibiting it.
This isn’t the first time that khat’s relative harmlessness has been noted. The ACMD had already reviewed khat in 2005, coming to the same conclusion. In a separate independent scientific comparison of twenty drugs, khat came out as the least dangerous (heroin came out top, alcohol fifth, cannabis eleventh).
Nevertheless, several of our Conservative colleagues have shown they are looking to make another populist gesture on drugs policy. Baroness Warsi pledged a ban back in 2008, Chris Grayling backed a ban in 2009, and backbencher Mark Lancaster has been keen to nag the current government to ban the drug.
There’s only one hurdle to the Conservatives continuing Labour’s miserable approach. It’s their Coalition partners. That would be the Liberal Democrats.
Our minister in the Home Office is Jeremy Browne, who has taken responsibility for drugs policy as part of his brief. I expect him to be doing everything he can to ensure his department keeps to the ACMD’s expert advice.
We must also consider the effect that a khat ban will have on the Somali community. Alcohol, by all accounts a far more dangerous and addictive drug than khat, is given special treatment by the government because of its prevalence in our culture. The award-winning documentary The House I Live In (available now on BBC iPlayer) demonstrates how targeting the culture of a smaller black community is oppressive, discriminatory and completely illiberal.
Last month Nick Clegg became the first ever serving member of a British government to say that a new approach towards drugs is needed. Heeding the ACMD’s advice on khat would be a fantastic start.
* Duncan Stott is a Lib Dem member in Oxford.