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Why I shed no tears for these drug legalisers


THERE has been shrieking commentary in the press following the resignation of Professor Alex Stevens from the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The accusation from Professor Stevens is of intolerable political vetting of those appointed to the committee which, in addition to seeing him resign, has also led to the non-appointment of Niamh Eastwood, a non-practising barrister heading the legal rights drugs charity Release, a case he repeated to the ill-briefed and uncritical Justin Webb of BBC Radio Four’s Today programme yesterday. 

Whilst some journalists may be in a lather over these developments, should we be similarly concerned? In Eastwood’s case, her non-appointment seems to have to do with the fact that she characterised the minister responsible for drugs policy, and the Home Office, of making stuff up and of talking rubbish – and standing by what she said:

Make what you like of those accusations; they hardly augur well for the development of a trusting relationship between a minister and his or her advisers.

Stevens’s resignation seems to be because he feels political vetting (whatever that is) has occurred and he does not like it one bit. Both Stevens and Eastwood have repeatedly argued for some form of drugs legalisation or decriminalisation, i.e. a profound change in the very laws that have seen the setting up of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the first place. In my view, if you are going to argue for fundamentally overturning our drug laws you should not put yourself forward for appointment to a government committee set up under those very same laws. 

There is another dimension, though, which has to do with the first word in the committee’s title: ‘Advisory’. Some members of this committee, Stevens included, seem to be of the view that their recommendations should be implemented by whatever government is in power. Advice should be sought and given, but when it comes to implementation it needs to be weighed against a host of other things, including what the elected members have presented as their policies for tackling illegal drugs in the first place.

Am I crying into my pillow tonight at the failure to appoint Eastwood or to persuade Stevens to stay? Not particularly. What upsets me more is when government advisers and experts think the best we can do to tackle our drug problem is to implement ways in which drugs can be made more accessible. I want more barriers in place around drugs – indeed I want Trump’s much-vaunted wall in place to reduce access to these deadly substances.

Whilst it is argued by many, including Stevens and Eastwood, that drug policy should be located in the Department of Health rather than the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice, there are no treatments when it comes to non-addicted drug use. The call for the Department of Health to take the lead role here would amount to handing drugs policy over to a ministry that had nothing to say on the matter of how to enforce our drug laws. If that strikes you as a bad move, it is probably because you think that enforcement should remain a substantial part of how we are tackling our drugs problem. For those who dispute that view, I wonder how they would react if a drug-dealing den were to open next door to their home. Think they might call the police? Of course they would. Think they would recommend doing the same if it were your house, not theirs, adjacent to the drug-dealing den? Think again.

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Neil McKeganey
Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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