Debating drugs policy

Lord Norton

Should the law be changed?

I have previously commented on drugs policy and the need for a fundamental evidence-based review.  There is a conference taking place today and tomorrow on the subject, 0rganised by the all-party group on the subject.  Had it not been for teaching commitments, I would have been chairing today’s sessions.    There have been added calls recently for such a review and not just in this country. ( The President of Colombia has added his voice.)  As the BBC News website reports, there are some high level speakers at the conference, including the former head of M15, Baroness Manningham-Buller. 

As the debate I initiated in the Lords earlier this year showed, there is support from members of all parts of the Lords.  Indeed, one reader made a very telling observation in response to my post on the debate, noting that the minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, said that opinions were divided on the issue, when in fact the only dissenting voice in the debate was hers.  Everyone else who spoke argued in favour of a review.

15 comments for “Debating drugs policy

  1. 17/11/2011 at 1:45 pm

    You call for a review, yet from the BBC headline it appears Baroness Manningham-Buller has pre-guessed the outcome of such a review. There needs to be a proper review of all drugs, including those that presently happen to be legal (Prof David Nutt thinks there needs to be a big rethink on alcohol, for example). Then all aspects of policy surrounding drugs needs to be considered, not just whether supply should be legalised or regulated. For example, a review of cannabis needs to include a toughening up of the smoking ban to ensure people who never wish to encounter smoke of any type don’t have to (the Health Act already doesn’t specify tobacco smoking so would presumably cover cannabis).

    We need an evidence-based review, not headline-grabbing news items suggesting piecemeal changes to policy for political reasons.

  2. jake____
    17/11/2011 at 5:07 pm

    Lord Norton, I once again salute your past debate in the house of Lords. As you say, there was a near-consensus in the house aside from the noble baroness, whose mouth seemed to be controlled by neatly concealed government strings.. That rational and informed debate went some way to restoring my ‘faith’ in our ‘democracy’ whilst realising the value of the HoL.

    Baroness Manningham-Buller adds her voice to just another of the high-profile and highly-knowledgeable cohort of those who have been on the front lines in this war on (some) drugs. After 40 years it is time, at the very least, to see if the current prohibition relating to certain drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act has achieved any of the aims it has set out to. We all know it hasn’t, which is why there is such opposition to even have an independent review – if you don’t ask, you won’t hear bad news… seems to be the generic governmental MO… It is time for change, it is time for evidence and science to make drug police over ideology and belief.. and more and more are slowly realising this now…

  3. Adam
    17/11/2011 at 5:42 pm

    I don’t see how such a review can be argued with.

    It’s insulting to countries like Columbia and Mexico who see the worst of the violence and corruption caused by our *illicit* drug use to say that even a formal look at the evidence and alternatives is a step too far.

    Some suggest that even discussing these things might “send out the wrong message” but that suggests a staggering level of authoritarianism. And no-one’s suggesting that all drugs are fine; it’s a matter of how best to limit harms.

    Given the spending squeeze that the Home Office and Ministry of Justice are faced with, it’s more important than ever to make sure public money is being put to good use. And going beyond finances, some may be fine with removing liberties “for the greater good”, but we do need to check now and again that we aren’t taking away those liberties without actually getting anything – or worse – in return.

    The Liberal Democrats called for an independent impact assessment. As you know, this is now required for all legislation. It’s only because the Misuse of Drugs Act is so old that it’s never been assessed in this way. Hopefully this would look at alternatives – including much stricter prohibition! – and at the very least make some recommendations about where money is best spent (e.g. schools vs airports) and how the evidence-base can be improved in future.

    The Mid-Term Review must be a good time to commission this assessment. This is not too much to ask for.

    • jake____
      17/11/2011 at 6:53 pm

      Adam I agree, and speaking of Mexico and Colombia, president Filipe Calderon has suggested the use of “market alternatives” (, which is code for legalisation… and Santos has said “If that means legalising, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it. I’m not against it.” ( The ‘brilliance’ of the current policy is that not only does prohibition make drug use more harmful to users but its advocates also try guilt people into not ingesting by telling them to look at the havoc unleashed in producer countries, then uses both of these negatives CAUSED by prohibition as a reason not to use. It then proclaims that these consequences are a sign of “success”.. where is the message in that hey..!

      The current government “message” on drugs is that regardless of the relative health and societal harms of different drugs (‘controlled’ and ‘legal’), if you don’t use Alcohol, Tobacco or Caffeine, you can go F*%K yourself in terms of your civil rights and personal health.

      For reference just look at the health harms of different drugs released by the Department of Health and see if their “Class” status is justified The role of a democratic government is not to tell me how I spend my free time absent harm to others, but to make sure that any risky choices we make are as safe and free as possible.

      (Lord Norton, apologies for the above expression, but that is really how many feel)

      • maude elwes
        18/11/2011 at 3:36 pm

        How is it that governments have managed to virtually end smoking with legislation but cannot manage it with so called ‘illegal drugs’?

        Can you smoke in a restaurant, hsopital, school, child care facility, hotel lobby, airplane, anymore? And how long has it taken them to now begin a ‘not in your car either’ sideline.

        Who is the seller of these drugs really? Who is making the money? The real money behind it I mean? And why is that not being addressed with vigour?

        Who are the people getting back handers to see this continues to make millions for those unseen?

        Because if you can make the population quit smoking cigarettes, you can make them stop drug taking.

        If you want to that is.

        • jake____
          18/11/2011 at 6:09 pm

          Maude.. “virtually end smoking”.. really? Around 20% of the population still smoke (scroll down to see the graph).

          Rates of smoking are declining and we didn’t have to send out masses of police to arrest anyone possessing a cigarette.. we did it through education, advertising bans, health campaigns and taxes. If anything, the success you are promoting demonstrates that by making a drug legal and regulated you can control it, having far more influence over helping people give up – in effect making it safer and reducing its use rate.

          In a free society we should be allowed to smoke if we so choose, as long as we are not causing harm to others, which is why I support the indoor smoking bans (and minimum alcohol unit pricing). Many ‘illegal’ drugs are far less harmful than tobacco (, both in terms of addictive qualities, toxicity and long-term effects and it should be a right of a citizen to be able to alter their consciousness in this way if they so choose (again, absent harm to others).

          If legal regulation with compassionate healthcare works so well with such a dangerous and addictive drug as tobacco.. why can’t it work with others…?

          • maude elwes
            19/11/2011 at 6:00 pm


            Actually, Jake, I am more or less with you on this matter. Shock horror.

      • 19/11/2011 at 1:00 am

        Lord Norton and Adam,
        Today I have two brothers, both parents, a sister-in-law and a nephew as well as many associates in Mexico who recently crossed the border and will soon again. Their activity is centered around a large home and base which is part of an old Marquis’ palace. Last week my second cousin died of what is reputed to be a hot dose of heroine. I used to drive a young first cousin of mine from his oilfield job to jail whenever he got off work and then back again. For me these issues have real relevance.

        I favor the adoption a a policy which is complex and mutlifaceted. I think these are ideas which I have expressed here before. I have proposed this in context of treaties and casinos and so forth as well as agricultural treaties. However, I also have adopted it as part of the more radical political change I advocate at home:
        Article Six, Section Five, subsection four of my proposed “Model US Constitution” deals with drugs in some detail. But even in the very unlikely event my brand of radical change came to this country it would still remain an international issue which many nations must deal with. The toll of the currebt state of affairs is really significant.

  4. Matthew
    17/11/2011 at 11:40 pm

    Lord Norton,

    First of all, thank you very much for bringing up this crucial problem, where no one else has managed to.

    Enlightened individuals the country over look onto this vestige of the dark ages and despair. It’s truly awful that we have reactionary populism preventing ministers from doing what any well thought out system of ethics inevitably infers. Yes, even theirs, after they leave their positions.

    As a student, I hear academics covering studies on the effects of psychotropic drugs, but then carefully saying something to the effect of “this doesn’t mean it’s okay …”, and students understanding that the anti-drugs fervour is largely baggage carried by moralist tribalism.

    Modern cognitive science shows us what Bentham realised centuries ago. Undeliberated deontological ethics leads to fundamentally absurd conclusions. The rationalisations given are just that–rationalisations. Point out that those rationalisations in a given ethical dilemma are invalid, and the person simply becomes more convicted and irate.

    Any moral philosophy is absolutely fine for any individual to adopt, providing that doing so doesn’t lead to behaviour that significantly harms other individuals. However, forcing such arbitrary ethical models on an entire population, just because a minority or majority “feel” that something is “unnatural” from the bottom of their “gut”, is insulting at best.

    Thank goodness Francis Crick wasn’t prevented from taking lysergic acid diethylamide, as a large part of what I study wouldn’t be known today. We would be half the way back to the Victorian darkness in which this purely intuitive moralism belongs.

    My main concern is in the way different drugs are legalised. First point: many illicit drugs have medical applications, and many more have potential but are difficult to research due to their legal status. I suggest that making research easier be a priority. Second point: Some are much more dangerous than others. As you say, evidence-based policy is a must. I suggest that factual education campaigns be considered for before or alongside legalisation. Third point: Spain’s method may be the first step forward. That is, decriminalisation before legalisation. When policy changes, it must be done carefully, but care must not be used as an excuse to delay ad infinitum.

    Of course the intelligent people in the Lords don’t need anyone saying any of this–the Sun isn’t frothing by their legs, and their careers don’t depend on eliciting said rottweiler’s mercy with unshaken professed belief.

    Thank you again.

    • jake____
      18/11/2011 at 10:43 am

      @Matthew; Regarding your first point and the difficulty in medical research. This is, of course, deliberate. How can you justify 40 years of demonising a drug, saying that it is “bad” on one hand and then be prescribing it to help people on the other.

      Two examples spring to mind. The first is Heroin. Heroin has medical applications and is often administered by doctors, but in order to separate recreational use and medical use, you will never hear it being called ‘Heroin’ in medical circles.. always Diamorphine (Diacetylmorphine in other countries). ‘Heroin’=Bad, ‘Diamorphine’=good, clean medical product. The second example is Cannabis, which the government does not recognise as having any medical use. Yet it has granted GW Pharma a licence to produce and supply Sativex, which is basically a tincture of two strains of raw Cannabis filtered and with added Alcohol to form a spray. Pharmacologically it is no different to herbal Cannabis which may I remind has ‘no medical uses’. Some have even tried to claim it does not get you high (it can). But now that it is a ‘pharmaceutical’ product it is ‘good’. So, general Cannabis=bad, a perceptually-different-but-not-pharmacologically-different form of Cannabis = good.

      The point is, if you allow too much research and show that some of these ‘controlled’ are not as dangerous as claimed (and used as justification for their prohibition) and are actually BENEFICIAL to Humans, you greatly undermine the key claim of prohibitionists that (only some) drugs are “evil” and any amount of suffering their prohibition generates is justified to protect us all from ourselves. Just look at how the actual safety of Cannabis has been overwhelmingly demonstrated in the US states that have legalised for medical reasons, and the slow shift of opinion away from government rhetoric(lies) about its dangers Yes Cannabis carries risks, as every drug does, but it has been a lot harder to convince a gullible public about all their claims against Cannabis when people know personally many who have used/use without any detrimental effects. That is what governments are scared of – losing their grip on controlling opinion.

  5. Gareth Howell
    18/11/2011 at 9:02 pm

    Jake’s comments are instructive.

    I think we placed the focus on the individual user and his non-criminality, and the wholesaler/trader as the criminal, when we discussed it last, and that the Portuguese experience is a good one to follow.

    I really agree very much with the wisdom of Jake’s references to diamorphine and GW pharma’s new product.

    Diamorphine is what the terminal surgeon uses in his geriatric hospital, to end the lives of all agéd hospital bound patients. It is very sad that some are persuaded ,even early in life, that they should end theirs, slowly but surely, by using the open market product named heroin.

    One wonders therefore if the cocain product from GW pharma is also going to be used to
    anaesthetize in some way.
    What are its possible uses?

    • jake____
      19/11/2011 at 11:48 am

      I’m glad you find my comments instructive Gareth :-). Couple of points though, Diamorphine/Heroin use itself isn’t actually that damaging, with a clean supply an addict can live a normal life, it does not damage your organs in the way e.g. Alcohol does to the liver (a LOT more info on this topic here “We cannot find any medical research from any source which will support the international governmental contention that heroin harms the body or mind of its users.” – thoroughly advise reading the whole article). What is damaging is letting criminals cut it with whatever they choose to increase profits, not having a regular/clean supply and locking users up when they should be in hospital (or at least in contact with health services) instead.

      Where there is demand there will always be supply. At no point in Human history has this principle been violated in relation to drugs. Who supplies, and how they do it, is solely a government CHOICE. The more restrictive government controls are on supply, the higher the profits are and hence increased incentive to start ‘dealing’. With governmental control, in the regulated sense (not by violent criminals that politicians currently call ‘control’), drug use can be made safer, barriers to treatment are reduced and so are individual and societal harms.

      Portugal’s decriminalisation, whilst effective, is a half way measure as supply is still controlled by the most brutal, violent and cunning in society. Production must be regulated too, unless one thinks that over 40,000 deaths in Mexico, funding the Taliban and poverty-stricken Coca farmers is acceptable because we have reduced the problem at home.. Prohibition acts globally so we must think globally lest we sentence producer countries to continual corruption and violence… which, to me, is inexcusable.

  6. Gareth Howell
    20/11/2011 at 2:31 pm

    and locking users up when they should be in hospital (or at least in contact with health services) instead.

    THAT is the argument for decriminalising the consumer.

    still controlled by the most brutal, violent and cunning in society. Production must be regulated too,

    And THAT puts the finger upon the continuing
    fight against Drugs crime.

    Diamorphine is used to end the lives of the agéd once they have signed on the dottéd line, known as signing one’s own death warrant, which in the end, every one of us has to do. Without the signature, they can carry on for quite some time. It is also used for organ donors on wheels, who may also sign, all too easily, for their own meeting with the grim reaper.

  7. Gar
    20/11/2011 at 2:32 pm

    and locking users up when they should be in hospital (or at least in contact with health services) instead.

    THAT is the argument for decriminalising the consumer.

    still controlled by the most brutal, violent and cunning in society. Production must be regulated too,

    And THAT puts the finger upon the continuing
    fight against Drugs crime.

    Diamorphine is used to end the lives of the agéd once they have signed on the dottéd line, known as signing one’s own death warrant, which in the end, every one of us has to do. Without the signature, they can carry on for quite some time. It is also used for organ donors on wheels, who may also sign, all too easily, for their own meeting with the grim reaper.

  8. 27/01/2012 at 2:55 am

    I am reminded of the words of former Police Chief of Seattle Norm Stamper who supports an end to prohibition for all drugs, so as to make all drugs less available for children. In support are the 10,000 other former law enforcement officers in LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Take away the forbidden fruit and give people harm reduction options for changing their consciousness such as cannabis.

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