Opinion: Why we need an impact assessment of drugs policy

Yesterday, Labour MP and former minister, Bob Ainsworth came out strongly against drugs prohibition. He proposed an “Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act”, an “independent, evidence-based review, exploring all policy options” which was welcomed by Lib Dem MP Tom Brake. This is precisely one of the things that the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform (LDDPR) are calling for and I’d therefore like to give an overview of why an impact assessment is needed and is something that all can support.

1. One has never been done despite strong reasons for concern
Back in 1971, there were no ‘impact assessments’ of new policies such as the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then there have of course been a raft of unintended consequences from prohibition and no decrease – quite the reverse – in drug consumption. We now have decades of experience from around the world to work with. Articles of faith such as the ‘deterrent effect’ do not hold up under scrutiny while Portugal’s once-feared decriminalisation has produced nothing but good results.

It is important to note though that such an audit should be a neutral comparison of approaches ranging from legal regulation to even stronger prohibition (and that one size does not fit all drugs). There are many MPs and Lords who have a very orthodox view of drugs policy and yet want to see evidence of effectiveness, of value-for-money.

The consultation for the Government’s recently announced drugs strategy was criticised my MPs and charities alike for its lack of breadth and time. When it arrived the strategy was similarly unambitious and though it did come with the required impact assessment, this was little more than an exercise in box-ticking. When comparing their proposals to an alternative, what did they choose? “Do nothing”.

2. This is an ideal time
If that weren’t enough, 2011 will see the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act as well as the big 5-0 for the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which continues to dominate drugs policy across the world and is a large obstacle to reform. But the times they are a-changin’. Several US states may well legalise cannabis in 2012 while Latin America is justifiably unhappy with the status quo.

The UK is faced with large cuts to law enforcement and the judiciary while it is estimated that regulation would save billions. Given that this is being proposed by a Labour MP, and would be commissioned by the Coalition, a reasonably independent review may be possible and without any one side being blamed for daring to question prohibition.

Such fear of Daily Mail rebuke may be misplaced, in any case. A poll commissioned by LDDPR showed, for example, 70% – from across the spectrum – in favour of either strict or light regulation of cannabis as opposed to prohibition. Ainsworth is just the latest figure to criticise the current system, from Professor Nutt to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; the latter calling for decriminalisation and the consideration of regulatory models.

3. The Liberal Democrats could leave at least some legacy on drugs policy
The Lib Dems have by far the best set of drugs policies. But what will our first term in Government leave behind? The scrapping of the need to have at least a few scientists on the ACMD? The anti-harm-reduction side of the Tory party barely held back? The prohibition of currently legal drugs such as khat or salvia?

This is a fine opportunity to retain a distinct Liberal Democrat voice, having first called for a broad review in 1994, and again in 2002. Does the party hold so little power in this Government that it can’t now achieve this?

4. It allows a rethink for all sides
While it’s difficult for politicians to come out against what they’ve been doing for decades, such a report allows a shift of direction between elections and the public should be able to respect this, particularly if their minds have been changed too. It is an excellent way of encouraging all parties into policies actually backed by evidence.

That includes the Lib Dems. Our current policy suggests that regulation might be a good idea but that (for drugs other cannabis) such a review is needed first. But on the other hand, if there is evidence that prohibition – perhaps even better resourced than at the moment – is the utilitarian option, I’d be willing to change my mind and I’m sure the party would too.

A broad assessment would presumably not be finished before Labour’s full policy review but I hope that they too will give this question the time it deserves.

Ministers (while in office, at least) will say in response to Ainsworth that they “don’t believe” that decriminalisation or regulation are appropriate, but do they have an answer as to why the evidence shouldn’t be looked at?

Adam Corlett is the acting vice-chair of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform who hope to have a motion at the Spring Conference. They will also be hosting an AGM with elections.

EDIT: the link at the bottom of section 2 has been refreshed as the first was dead.

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  • Good article,
    But I would like to ask a question – Why is Bob Ainsworth saying this now but when he had power to actually do something he kept quite?.

  • Leviticus18_23 17th Dec '10 - 3:14pm

    It’s a great idea. Prohibition doesn’t work and the war on drugs has failed. Its been time for a rethink for a while. The current system puts cash in the hands of criminals and ruins lives in the counties that produce.

    The LibDems had a more sensible approach to drugs than the major parties. However, now that they’ve got their feet under the table I think we all know that we can expect at best nothing or, more likely, a fair and progressive u-turn (like we’ll see on control orders).

  • The big problem is, who would dare to legalise some drugs or all drugs? I would imagine that it would take a very daring government, considering the fear of being the government responsible for legalising drugs, and then drug use getting worse or crime getting worse.

    I passionately believe we should legalise all drugs, and have regulation to make sure they’re all clean, and have a strong drug rehabilitation program for people who become addicted. With the rise of synthetic drugs, prohibition is going to become increasingly redundant.
    There are many reason for legalisation. Directing police money towards solving crimes that will make us a genuinely safer society, like violent crime and anti-social behaviour. Saving money on putting poeple through the court system and in prison. Delivering a severe blow to gangsters and low level yobs by taking one of their biggest trades away from them.
    It would play a big role in stabilising many parts of the world, and would be a legitimate industry that could help some of the poorest countries, it would help stop corruption in governments and not least, it would deprive the taliban of possibly 70% of their funding.

    An impact assessment could be an ideal compromise. It would allow the government to show the country the effects of prohibition and maybe open the door to a more effective policy.

  • I think Bob Ainsworth’s argument that he would have had to quit his job if he had spoken, and chose instead to try to do the best he could within the limits of prohibition is an understandable one.

    It’s hardly likely he would have shaken the world if he did make the argument for legalisation when he was drugs minister and virtually no one had heard of him.

  • Very well considered argument which I wholeheartedly agree with. I concur that the line oft trotted out in such circumstances that “politicians are too scared of the daily mail” is out-dated and doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny. Ainsworth’s pronouncement yesterday was relegated to three quarters down the page of the Mail website and certainly not headline news. Secondly, a rather unscientific, examination of the comments that followed revealed that more than half of those responding were in favour of such a move whilst the other 40ish per cent were merely of the reactionary ‘hang em and flog em’ brigade. Much as I usually clash with Daily Mail readers I’m not sure they would be quite so ‘anti’ as people presume.

    Another factor to reinforce the idea that ‘now is the time’ is Cameron himself. Again much as his views usually clash with mine he’s not quite of the old morally righteous Tory brigade and was a member of the Commons comittee that called for a drugs policy rethink. I hope we will continue to sound a rational voice and believe Miliband missed a trick by not being ‘open to new politics’. It may take another generation but it will happen eventually -so why not now?

  • Guy Patteson 18th Dec '10 - 10:36am

    Criminalising drug use is a mistaken policy; it is very much a personal health issue and needs to be treated that way. A regulatory system which required both user and dealer to be licensed would enable much more control to be excercised.

  • Paul McKeown 18th Dec '10 - 7:04pm

    Prohibition doesn’t work and the tide of public opinion is slowly turning to support that view. Neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives should fear a backlash from the Daily Mail: the Mail will never have a good word to say about the LDs, so why should they care, and the Cons have nothing to fear, as, ultimately, the Mail has nowhere else to turn to. I would commend a certain degree of courage to the Coalition in having a rethink about drugs policy. More science, less fear of drivel from the tabloids.

  • How many people does alcohol kill? What about cannabis? Which one is illegal? Right.

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