Neil McKeganey: The so-called Global Drugs Commission is a front for legalisation

The loftily entitled Global Commission on Drugs has just released a new report, “Taking Control: Drug Policies that Work”, which has garnered disproportionate media coverage. For those who are unaware, the Commission is a collection of ex-political leaders and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, all of whom are promoting the legalisation of all currently illegal drugs.

This is a policy that they push on the basis, so they claim, of massive evidence of the failure of the “ war on drugs”- evidence that somehow eluded them when they occupied high office and that equally strangely manages to elude those who currently occupy those positions.

This is a Global Commission name only. It has no representatives from Africa, China, Russia, India or the Islamic world. Its advice on drugs policy is that drugs should be regulated by governments across the world irrespective of their political, ethical, religious, philosophical, and moral colour or the nature of the drug problem they are dealing with, or the drugs treatment infrastructure they have in place.

This is a single-issue lobby group with a one size fits all drugs policy. The Global Commission is, in other words, drugs legaliser Number One. Its advice is so patently absurd that were it not for the high office its commissioners once held, it is hard to see that it would have attracted a fraction of the media coverage it has secured for its latest legalisation treatise.

The Commission promotes its solution to the world’s drugs problem on the back of a series of un-evidenced claims that huge (but unspecified) numbers of addicts are having their human rights abused, are being jailed for no offence other than drugs possession and, shock horror, are being forced into treatment. The reality is that whatever happens elsewhere in the world there are virtually no addicts in the UK who are jailed for simple drugs possession, and often the only constraint  that is brought to bear on them is the threat of being sent to jail or being required to undergo treatment as a response to their repeat offending.

For the Global Commission all this amounts to a violation of the addict’s human rights - far better it seems to allow the addict to wallow in his or her own misery till the point at which they decide to get treatment. Far better, that is, unless you happen to be the victim of drug-related crime or the child of a hooked parent, who cares more about the powder being shot into their veins than your need for a safe and nurturing home life.

The thinking behind the Global Commission’s report is so deeply flawed it hurts. Within the UK the latest drugs disaster has to do with legal highs - the number of deaths linked to these drugs having risen by over 600 per cent in the last three years. This is the frontline in our drugs problem and the drugs are - you guessed it -legal. This then is the embodiment of the Global Commission’s “wise” counsel: legal drugs for everybody, available everywhere, without any fear of prosecution. Only trouble is the drugs are actually very harmful.

New Zealand tried to go down the route of licensing the legal high shops only to find that the drugs that were being sold were so dangerous they needed to shut the shops down forthwith. Portugal, so often trumpeted by the legalisers as the Mecca of their cherished policy, similarly banned the sale of legal highs. Ireland has done the same.

Prohibition, it turns out, has a great deal to commend it when the drugs being sold are actually killing people. In the event that any Government were so foolish as to follow the Global Commission’s flawed advice, expect to see a worsening not improving drugs problem.

Neil McKeganey

  • Cuchugar

    Professor McKeganey is not only correct in saying that ‘there are virtually no addicts in the UK who are jailed for simple drugs possession’ – even in the USA where the legalisers have been shouting that users are being imprisoned for just using marijuana the same is true. The following quote from an article called ‘Who’s Really in Prison for Marijuana?’ explains this:

    ‘The overwhelming majority of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses are not occasional, casual, or first-time users. Rather they are criminals who have been found guilty of trafficking, growing, manufacturing, selling, or distributing the drug, or who were convicted of multiple offenses that happened to include a marijuana charge. Seldom does anyone in this country go to prison for nothing more than smoking pot.’
    Many parents have been persuaded that cannabis is harmless because
    of the so-called medical marijuana scam; and many people have been persuaded that the substance should be legalised because, amongst others, the self appointed Global Commission on Drugs says that addicts are being thrown in jail for simple possession. Those that want drugs legalised are totally dishonest when they suggest this is for compassionate reasons and Professor Mckeganey does us all a service in setting this ball rolling.

    • flux5000

      Try giving us a reference for the evidence you are supporting, otherwise some may say it isn’t true.
      Are you aware of the three strikes rule? On the third offense, even for less than a gramme, you could see life in prison, your ‘evidence’ appears at odds with what most people see in the USA.

  • Transformdrugs

    Hi Neil

    I respect your academic work and have had useful and civil conversations with you personally – so I was dissapointed with your comments on the GCDP report on the Conservative Woman blog which I felt were ill-informed and reactionary. They give the impression that you have not
    actually read the report or listened to the live streamed presentations from the launch, but were responding to some of the headlines. I was involved in the reports production so perhaps notice these misrepresentations more than most.

    The headline was odd as they are not a ‘front’ for legalisation (which implies some sort of sneakiness or deception). Legal regulation of drug markets is one of the core calls of the report, as indeed you make clear.

    You have also got the title of the report wrong.

    Your description of the Commission as ‘a collection of ex-political leaders and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’ feels somewhat dissmissive. The Commissioners do include Branson, but also seven former heads of State (the Prime Minister of Greece incidentally was still in power when he joined the commission), the former UN Secretary General, the former UN high commissioner of human rights, the former UN commissioner on refugees, and the serving UN special envoy on HIV in Eastern Europe (also the former head of the Global Fund). You detail
    none of this and don’t even provide a link to the report or the commission site – which is good practice even if you dont like what you are writing about.

    You say that they are ‘promoting the legalisation of all currently illegal drugs’. That is not accurate and fails to capture more nuanced position of the report. The report clearly outlines a range of possible regulation approaches for different drug associated with different risks, but specifically states:

    ‘exploring regulatory models for a range of of drugs does not suggest that all drugs or drug preparations should be made legally available. Maintaining prohibitions on the most potent and risky drugs or drug preparations, such as crack…is also a health imperative’ (p.28)


    ‘Inevitably, while some of drugs will be accessible with appropriate controls and some only available via medical prescription, other more harmful drugs will neccassarily remain prohibited’

    There is a summary of the ‘massive evidence of the failure of the “ war on drugs”’ in the report on page 12 (all carefully referenced, and links to further reading are also provided at the end), and their previous reports have explored these themes, notably regarding HIV and HepC, in
    considerably more detail.

    That this evidence, as you sweepingly claim ‘strangely manages to elude those who currently occupy those positions’ conveniently ignores the numerous sitting politicians who dont ignore it. Indeed many, including the presidents of the USA, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico are
    prominently quoted in the report. Nearer to home, is, amongst many others, Clegg – whom you have actually written about on the same blog.

    You say that it is a Global Commission in name only, and ‘It has no representatives from Africa, China, Russia, India or the Islamic world’. It does infact very prominently include Kofi Annan from Africa, and Asma Jahangir, the former UN special rapporteur on arbitrary,
    extra-judical and summary Executions – from Pakistan.

    You then say ‘Its advice on drugs policy is that drugs should be regulated by governments across the world irrespective of their political, ethical, religious, philosophical, and moral colour or the nature of the drug problem they are dealing with, or the drugs treatment infrastructure
    they have in place”.

    This again does a disservice to the actual contents of the report which is clear that:

    ‘A legal regulatory framework therefore establishes strict and transparent parameters for the drug trade. Rather than expand what is available, it would instead control what is permitted and set guidelines for the availability of specific products. The precise details of which drugs or drug products should be available and under what regulatory framework would need to be decided by local jurisdictions themselves, based on their specific realities and challenges’

    You say the commission is a “a single-issue lobby group with a one size fits all drugs policy”. Single issue regards drug policy, well yes – hence the name (I dont recall ever refering to you as single issue academic or lobbyist, although arguably you are both), but the chairs foreword is clear that “There is no one-size-fits-all pathway to enacting drug policy reform”. Whilst
    they are clear that the health reorientation, decriminalisation, and essential medicines recommendations are urgent and universal – they is a clear committment to greater environemtnally determined flexibility regarding enforcement strategies and regulation.

    You say that ‘claims that huge (but unspecified) numbers of addicts are having their
    human rights abused, are being jailed for no offence other than drugs possession and, shock horror, are being forced into treatment’ are ‘unevidenced’ . In fact referenced numbers are provided in the examples in the opening section (see p.12) on coerced treatment and human rights abuses – and much more is provided in the further reading sections. It is bizarre that you would just sweep these horrendous issues aside as if they were not happening – if this is what you are indeed claiming.

    There is also a much more nuanced discussion of treatment and drug courts than you suggest. It only specifically rules out coerced treatment for possession only offences. This may not be an issue in the UK but abusive coerced treatment is a huge issue in many other countries, and it is obviously not only the Global commission pointing this out.

    It is ridiculous to suggest that the unregulated legal high free for all in the UK is somehow the ’embodiement’ of the commissions approach – as even a cursory reading of the regulation section will make more than clear. They are very clear that strict regulation is needed and
    specifically highlight the problems with unregulated or inadequately regulated legal markets. To suggest the Commmission advocate’ legal drugs for everybody, available everywhere’ is extremely misleading.

    You also inaccurately report developments in New Zealand (again). The NPS regulation model passed in the 2013 law is still in place and progressing. What has happened is that the interim licences for a small number of products (that was serving as a bridge between the unregulated
    system and the newly established regulatory model) have been withdrawn.This was largely driven by election time panic – but had infact already substantially reduced the number of headshopss completely unregulated products being sold. The new law is still on track so please stop claiming it has been abandonned – only the temporary licenses have
    been withdrawn.

    The comment about Portugal, that it is ‘trumpeted by the legalisers as the Mecca of their cherished policy’ also makes no sense as they havent legalised any drugs, and no ‘legalisers’ im aware of, let alone the commission – claim that they have. They have decrimianlised possession for personal use and reoriented drug policy spending from enforcement to
    health and harm reduction – the results have generally been very positive. For a summary with the latest data see:

    You seem to totally miss the whole thrust of the regulation argument. One of the Commissions headlines is “The regulation of drugs should be pursued because they are risky, not because they are safe”.

    Please actually read a publication before critiquing it next time. You are welcome in the debate but please at least report others views and statements accurately

    Steve Rolles

    Senior Policy Analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation

  • sceptic

    There is little doubt that excesses of prohibition – notably American attempts to affect drug using behaviour through deterrent sentencing – have led to gross injustices without achieving their intended objectives. The use of these injustices along with the simplistic extension of the worst excesses of the drugs trade, the violence when things go wrong or when competing forces come together, are used to present a distorted image prohibition that has been reduced to the term “war on drugs”. In the UK it has been a phoney war. I say that as someone who has been locked up for my drug use – repeatedly. The one thing those who say that is wrong ignore is the fact that getting locked up probably saved my life.
    There is a balance between the excesses of prohibition but finding it requires a more honest engagement with the evidence than the Global Commission have achieved. The call for legalisation is a fashionable trend that appears to be feeding from the logic of applying it to cannabis use – I agree with much of the logic though I am more wary about the unintended consequences change. An interview that challenged my liberal attitude to drugs came after interviewing an addicted heroin dealer who was selling 2 oz of the drug a week. At the end of the interview unlike other users, he refused the payment and said ‘I didn’t do it for the money, I did it because somebody needs to do something about this shit’. Other users expressed similar views – they wanted support, help even heroin for themselves but they wanted something better for the neighbourhood. It is not just wishful thinking to believe that legalisation will deliver a better world it is a delusion.

  • flux5000

    Mr McKegeny is obviously a front for prohibition, perhaps even gangsters, given that you argue for their continued running of the drugs trade/status quo.
    It is also obvious you have not read the report, and are in fact merely providing a kneejerk response to the headlines, this undermines your ‘position’ and your already shaky credibility.

    Please try harder before you become a laughing stock and provide a proper and thorough appraisal of the report, perhaps a try at reading it may help?

    If this is the best you can do may I suggest you pick another issue to boo on about?

  • Highlifes

    Please stop with this stupid campaign. Drugs are out of control and its best to save lives first by regulating & avoiding unnecessary deaths from uncontrolled drugs, then offer impartial help to those who need it.

    I was not impressed by this article one bit.