The former head of the UK Anti-drug Co-ordination Unit (UKADCU - the Home Office department in charge of drug policy), Julian Critchley, posted to BBC Home Affairs correspondent, Mark Easton's blog last week, 'The War on Drugs' , calling for the legalisation of drugs.
Media Update: 14.08.08
- Guardian coverage
- Danny Kushlick writes for Comment is Free in the Guardian (168 comments and counting)
- BBC online coverage
- Critchley on the BBC Radio 4's Today (audio)
- Telegraph coverage
- Daily Mail coverage
- Julian Critchley writing in the Independent
"I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view : the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the Government's policy was actually causing harm."
Julian Critchley is to be congratulated for speaking out with such candour on the issue. One can only wonder how many other former civil servants are of the same opinion, but haven't gone public.
we live in hope
There is nothing to suggest that things have changed at the highest level in drug policy development in the UK, even if the name of the department has changed a few times (to show 'something is being done') since Critchley's stint in charge. During the recent 'consultation' on the ten-year drug strategy, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs described the Government's consultation document thus:
"it is unfortunate that the consultation paper’s ‘key facts and evidence’ section appears to focus on trying to convince the reader of success and progress; rather than providing an objective review and presentation of the current evidence. The ACMD found the consultation paper self-congratulatory and generally disappointing."Plus ca change...
Critchley, having retrained as a teacher, concludes with the following:
"I find that when presented with the facts, the students I teach are quite capable of considering issues such as this, and reaching rational conclusions even if they started with a blind Daily Mailesque approach. I find it a shame that no mainstream political party accords the electorate the same respect."Critchley's posts are copied below in full.
73. At 7:25pm on 30 Jul 2008, JulianCritchley wrote:
Several years ago, I was Director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit in Cabinet Office (which sounds a lot grander than it was). Our job was to co-ordinate Government policy across the Departments, supporting the then Drugs "Tsar", Keith Hellawell. I joined the Unit more or less agnostic on drugs policy, being personally opposed to drug use, but open-minded about the best way to deal with the problem. I was certainly not inclined to decriminalise.
However, during my time in the Unit, as I saw more and more evidence of ?what works?, to quote New Labour's mantra of the time, it became apparent to me that the available evidence pointed very clearly to the fact that enforcement and supply-side interventions were largely pointless. They have no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability or use of drugs. In the Spending Review we undertook, we did successfully manage to re-allocate resources towards treatment programmes, but even then I had misgivings about the effectiveness of those programmes. Many hear the word "treatment" and imagine medical intervention or "cures", yet many of these programmes were often supported largely by anecdotal evidence of success, and the more successful interventions were simply too expensive to use widely, given other pressures on health budgets.
It seems apparent to me that wishing drug use away is folly. The only sensible cause of action is to minimise the damage caused to society by individuals' drugs choices. What harms society is the illegality of drugs and all the costs associated with that. There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalisation would be dramatic. The argument always put forward against this is that there would be a commensurate increase in drug use as a result of legalisation. This, it seems to me, is a bogus point : tobacco is a legal drug, whose use is declining, and precisely because it is legal, its users are far more amenable to Government control, education programmes and taxation than they would be, were it illegal. Studies suggest that the market is already almost saturated, and anyone who wishes to purchase the drug of their choice, anywhere in the UK, can already do so. The idea that many people are holding back solely because of a law which they know is already unenforceable is simply ridiculous.
Ultimately, people will make choices which harm themselves, whether that involve their diet, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, sexual activity or pursuit of extreme sports, for that matter. The Government in all these instances rightly takes the line that if these activities are to be pursued, society will ensure that those who pursue them : have access to accurate information about the risks; can access assistance to change their harmful habits should they so wish; are protected by legal standards regime; are taxed accordingly; and ? crucially - do not harm other people. Only in the field of drugs does the Government take a different line, and as a direct result, society suffers truly enormous consequences in terms of crime, both petty and organised, and harm to individuals who are criminalised and unprotected in the pursuit of their drug.
I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view : the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the Government's policy was actually causing harm. I recall a conversation I had with a No 10 policy advisor about a series of Whitehall-wide announcements in which we were to emphasise the shift of resources to treatment and highlighting successes in prevention and education. She asked me whether we couldn?t arrange for 'a drugs bust in Brighton' at the same time, or 'a boat speeding down the Thames to catch smugglers'. For that advisor, what worked mattered considerably less than what would play well in the Daily Mail. The tragedy of our drugs policy is that it is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by reference to evidence.
77. At 9:38pm on 30 Jul 2008, JulianCritchley wrote:
Re : post 75, RandalCousinsI agree with you, as it happens. It's not as simple as some legalisers would have it. It would be a step into the relative unknown, and we should never be glib about that. It might involve having to legally recognise some very nasty people who are currently involved in the trade, but I suspect that the main difference would be that they would be pursued by the taxman rather than the police. There are international obligations, there would be people who would self-harm through drugs and would blame the change of policy. It would take a mature society to accept that some individuals may hurt, or even kill themselves, as a result of a policy change, even if the evidence suggested that fewer people died or were harmed as a result. I'm not sure our media society is ready to deal with that degree of reason. It would take a brave Government to face down the tabloid fury in the face of anecdotes about nice middle class children who bought drugs legally and came to grief, and this is not a brave Government (see the reclassification of cannabis against all evidence and the advice of its own panel of experts).
However, the Government accepts that its job is to confront and challenge ignorance in other fields such as homophobia and racism, and the equality agenda was also once very unpopular with the tabloids (maybe still is in some parts). So I was thoroughly disillusioned to see so many people who had sought power, refusing to exercise the responsibility which went with that power. What is the point in seeking office in order to improve the lot of society, if you refuse to act on something which would dramatically improve the lot of society, especially those with the least ?
I left the Civil Service and retrained as a teacher, in no small part due to my experiences of having to implement policies which I knew, and my political masters knew, were unsupported, or even contradicted, by evidence. I find that when presented with the facts, the students I teach are quite capable of considering issues such as this, and reaching rational conclusions even if they started with a blind Daily Mailesque approach. I find it a shame that no mainstream political party accords the electorate the same respect.