Wading into shark-infested waters
Today is a big day for advocates of drug policy reform. Two reports released from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and from the UK drug charity Release make strong and compelling arguments for a new approach to drug policy. What makes these reports different from those that have come before is the incredible prestige of the individuals putting their names to them.
Both reports call for the decriminalisation of drug possession and the exploration of different regulatory control options that would undermine the powerful and extensive criminal networks involved in the illegal drugs market.
Drugs policy is generally considered to be a ‘third rail’ issue – touch it and you will commit political suicide. However, these reports –particularly the Global Commission on Drug Policy – begin to give the Coalition Government significant political cover to explore a different approach to drugs policy.
Some would argue it is unlikely the Government is going to initiate a radical reform of this nature in the midst of extensive public sector cuts, NHS reform and of course, the Big Society. Their political capital is all but spent; the last thing they ought to do is wade into the murky and shark-infested waters of drugs policy.
This argument is compelling, but ultimately wrong. Adopting a more progressive approach to drugs policy could be the Government’s equivalent of President Obama’s ‘Bin Laden killing’ – in one swift move it could introduce a ground-breaking shift in policy that would have its opponents applauding its bravery and progressiveness, albeit reluctantly.
Naturally, there would be backlash from the ‘red tops’ and Middle Englanders. However, this would likely dissipate as it became apparent that a new approach wouldn’t lead to chaos.
Still, drugs policy is notoriously difficult to change or improve. Instead of being drawn back into the same emotional and difficult debates around already illegal drugs like cannabis and ecstasy, the Coalition Government should adopt a new approach that is more forward-looking. New psychoactive substances provide an opportunity to do just that.
In a recent joint Demos/UK Drug Policy Commission report, we argued the Government should explore using consumer protection laws to control new psychoactive substances. The emergence of ‘legal highs’ over the past few years, and the quickness with which they can be brought to international markets through the Internet, calls into question traditional approaches to drugs policy-making.
By seeking to control new substances through consumer protection legislation we can begin to shift the burden of proof to the suppliers of these substances and test these substances for potential harms and to provide product assurances. The Government could also put strict controls on who sells these drugs (nowhere near schools, not with alcohol, etc) and age restrictions on who could buy it (no-one under 21).
By exploring a different approach to new psychoactive substances (aka ‘legal highs’), the Coalition Government could fulfil its claims of being progressive without getting dragged into the stale debates about already illegal substances which have derailed any form of progress for the past three decades.