Thursday, 16 December 2010

Permission to speak freely, Bob

"I don't know what he was thinking" said a highly-placed Labour source. I don't know what he was thinking, either. Presumably Bob Ainsworth - an experienced politician, if not exactly a compelling one - did not imagine that his suggestion that the "war on drugs" had failed and that the authorities be better advised exploring various sorts of legalisation would be entertained seriously by the government, or indeed by the present leadership of his own party. It is only ever politicians on the margins - mavericks, young turks, retired or ejected former ministers - who dare to challenge the status quo on drugs policy.

Ainsworth himself may have come to realise, when he was in office, that the "war on drugs" was not working. And there are plenty of senior police officers who, sotto voce, will admit the same thing. But if Ainsworth had said as much while he was in government his career would have come to an abrupt end. As it was, the combined contempt heaped upon the hapless ex-minister was enough to bury the story by lunchtime.

It would be fascinating to see a WikiLeaks-style cache of the conversations that take place inside government about drugs policy. I suspect they would reveal widespread recognition that prohibition benefits no-one but criminal smuggling gangs; that it clogs up the prisons with people who, at most, need medical help; and that some version of legalisation would be more cost-effective and less wasteful of lives. But of course - the internal memos continue - it will never happen. It would send out the "wrong message". It would be too dangerous politically. The Americans would be annoyed. It would be seen as rewarding criminality. The Daily Mail would have a field day. And so on.

Drugs policy is one of those areas where inertia prevails and where a long-established consensus effectively stifles dissent. Of course, you are allowed to argue for liberalisation, but only so long as you aren't in a position to do anything about it. The last government (of which Ainsworth was a member) experimented with the mildest sort of tinkering about the edges - altering the classification of cannabis - and was rewarded by lurid headlines and predictions of doom. In practical terms, the reclassification made little difference. All it did was provide an irresistible opportunity for a later Home Secretary to demonstrate the requisite toughness by re-imposing the old classification. But in political terms, it was truly radical. I doubt it will be repeated - especially not by a government that has already made too many liberal noises for the Mail's liking and will thus want to avoid appearing soft.

The problem, though, is not that the "war on drugs" has failed. It hasn't. Criminalisation hasn't eliminated drugs from our society - some, notably cocaine, are more widely available than ever. But it has succeeded in implanting in the public mind and the public sphere a number of highly questionable assumptions. For example, that certain substances, by virtue of being illegal, have intrinsically dangerous characteristics. In fact, the danger lies mainly in misuse (overdosing) and, especially, in the adulteration of drugs with dangerous substances. Such problems would be greatly reduced, or removed entirely, if drugs were legally obtainable. Or the notion that the social problems caused by illegal drug-use are caused by the drugs. In reality, there are many people who function quite normally despite using drugs on a regular basis. They are the hidden majority of users: hidden because they rarely come into contact with the criminal justice system, and not fitting the stereotype of a problematic drug-addict are of little interest to the press.

In other words, the war on drugs is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It creates (or at least sustains) the very social problems that it alone seems capable of tackling. And because they are serious problems, serious measures are needed to tackle them. It's very difficult for a politician actually in office to break out of such a mindset. But I doubt Bob Ainsworth will be the last to take advantage of the freedom that comes with utter irrelevance.