Challenging drugs policy

Lord Norton

I detect that attitudes towards drugs policy are starting to move, both at the international and the national level.  The Home Affairs Committee in the House of Commons announced last year that it was undertaking an inquiry and invited submissions.   It has now started taking evidence and has heard from Sir Richard Branson, who serves on the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, who has suggested that responsibility for drugs policy should be taken from the Home Office and treated instead as a health issue, a view I share.  The responses from the Home Office minister, Baroness Neville-Jones, to my debate last year in the Lords suggested that there was no movement on the part of the Department – something apparent from more recent responses to written questions – leaving it out on a limb, certainly in that debate.  I have no doubt that the Department of Health would be much better placed to adopt a more considered, and evidence-based, approach.

20 comments for “Challenging drugs policy

  1. Dave H
    24/01/2012 at 10:38 pm

    Simple – legalise it all, undercut the pushers with their dodgy stuff of unknown strength, add an automatic doubling or more of the penalty for any offence committed under the influence of a drug (including alcohol) and give employers powers to suspend/fire employees turning up under the influence.

    The message is that people can do what they like to themselves provided they keep it under control and don’t involve others, a bit of personal responsibility. You could use the money saved from having to deal with all the drug-related crime (which ought to go down with no pushers and gang wars) to help those who can’t cope.

    Obviously a fully-working policy would need a bit more than that, but I’d be interested to know if it would work, or whether we’d end up with a stoned generation incapable of doing anything.

    • maude elwes
      25/01/2012 at 12:03 pm

      All this sounds like freedom doesn’t it? Well here are a few warnings on this great idea of legalization changes.

      In the USA, where it is not legalized, but, what legalization is pushing for is, when you apply for work or put in your CV, over there in that wonderful free thinking place across the pond we follow so slavishly, you have to undergo a drugs test. At your expense of course. Form filling and drugs testing is rampant in the US job market.

      That means undergoing blood tests, urine tests and any other tests the boss comes up with for you to prove you are not taking substances considered will disrupt your work day. Some companies there do it on a regular Monday morning basis. This is to catch you out if you are a weekend user.

      The penalty is immediate dismissal. And as often, a report to the local police board of some kind.

      And don’t go away believing this only happens in down beat jobs or fast food chains. It has spread to all kinds of management positions as well, as, in some cases, top management. Some hospitals there run aggressive spot checks on staff, which usually means a colleague or someone who really cannot stand you has alerted a drug use scare on you.

      For the fun of it, some firms in the US send out a form once a month or so asking you to ‘inform’ on your fellow workers on issues such as drug taking, late arrival, not pulling your weight, or anything you feel may be ‘affecting’ the work practice of an individual in your department.

      So I am a sceptical about a change in drug laws and wonder if this will do anything to alleviate the problem we have in the UK on this matter.

      The problem lies more in ‘why’ people take drugs that leave them debilitated to such an extent they can barely function or become dependent, as we see here, including alcohol intake and that is where the research should investigate.

      Where is there a society that doesn’t have a need for drugs the way the UK does? The closer we have followed US policy the more problems we seem to develop in our society. In Europe there is less teenage pregnancy, less single family units, and so on. Why don’t we look into why this is? What is it in the way we are living that is exacerbating the need to escape this way?

      • Croft
        25/01/2012 at 2:24 pm

        “Some hospitals there run aggressive spot checks on staff, ”

        Stopping people, who make potentially life altering decisions, from coming to work under the influence of drugs is clearly in the patients best interests. Much the same protection applies to those driving commercial vehicles, operating machinery or any position where misjudgement has potentially dangerous outcomes.

        Much of what you say is though based on the misconception that it doesn’t happen here. Drugs testing does happen in quite a wide number of occupations and many others have contractual requirements for senior staff to have regular health checks.

        • maude elwes
          25/01/2012 at 4:39 pm


          I didn’t suggest drug testing didn’t happen here, in fact, I wasn’t very clear in my post and I apologize for that. However, it is rampant in the USA. And it is expensive to the people who are desperate for work.

          Of course you are right in your support of drug testing as a requirement in some areas and in a responsible society that should be expected for the reasons you raised.

          However, my point was to get into this more deeply. And this is what no one appears to want to address. That is ‘why’ our quality of life has worsened to the extent that here in the UK the drug problem is growing at a rate they long surpassed in the USA.


          My family remember whilst living in Beverly Hills ‘forty years ago’ drugs were being sold to school children at the gates of their entry and exit. It was known about and ignored. The shock to my family members who witnessed this, and were ridiculed by the people of the area, because they refused to believe the children of our family did not know what marijuana was upset them beyond measure. Until they asked the boys openly that is, and when they did, the reply from their eight year old and eleven year old sons, was, who is she? Only then did these Californians accept it was not prevalent in the British school system at that time.

          Now it has spread here akin to there. And my question to you is, what do you think the cause for that is? What was and is the problem with the quality of life in that country and now ours that has created this terrible predicament? As we can see, other countries have been far less affected.

          It is time politicians began to stop passing the buck and find out why their ideas of what is good for society is flawed this way.

          And before I forget, that part of my family had to flee as soon as possible before the situation was out of control. And they never looked back after doing so. Yes, career wise they had to sacrifice. Or did they, they claim not. Those sons are men today and what wonderful men they are.

          Lets look elsewhere. For example what have the Germans done to bring about a fall in deaths from drug addiction whilst ours continues to grow?


          This global view doesn’t explain much but it expands on the increases and where they have taken place.

          And to get to my point, if you decriminalize drugs, then surely random drug tests and the need for drug testing for employment, would have to end. Wouldn’t it?

          How could anyone justify a drugs test for using a legal substance? Has any of this been thought through?

          Not only that, has anyone researched communities that live outside the normal practice of the population such as the Amish or orthodox Jews. What are the rates of drug abuse in those communities? And if they are different, why are they different?

          Croft, I am not on one side or another, I am simply asking the question we would all like answered.

          Why has drug taking become to rampant in our, so called, civilized societies. What is it that drives the need to abuse the self? The best way to find out is to discover the quality of life of those who do not have such a drive as we do. Then compare.

          • Jake
            25/01/2012 at 11:17 pm

            @Maude, why does drug use automatically constitute “abuse”? Is having a cup of coffee in the morning ‘caffeine abuse’? Is having a glass of wine at the end of the week ‘abuse’? Is that different to having a joint at the end of the week? So it comes down to the “why”.. maybe it has something to do with this By the way, it is not only Humans who use drugs, and also think of cats and catnip.

            Any drug can be used responsibly, without harm, for enjoyment, relaxation or self-exploration. Conversely, it can be used as escapism or self-medication to the point of self abuse. The real question in this debate is not how to stop anyone taking anything (that is just naive and flies in the face of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of culture), but how to prevent the most vulnerable from going down a harmful path, ensuring that those that use do so safely and compassionate help for those that develop problems. Prohibition is unable to provide this level of care or control.

            p.s. I’m pretty sure that across all cultures/’races’ that usage is the same – we are all Human after all. You can find data arguing that this ‘race’ uses drugs more than that ‘race’.. but the overwhelming factor in those that abuse is down to their ‘class’ – the poor, the mentally ill, the vulnerable, the abused. Of course, our politicians think that another prison term and continued criminal record is the solution, even though after 40 years it has yielded no positive results, and nothing in comparison to the positive trends in tobacco usage/harms due to taxation and regulation..

        • Dave H
          25/01/2012 at 7:35 pm

          I think the main point of contention is who pays. If the boss wants the checks then he should foot the bill.

          • maude elwes
            26/01/2012 at 10:14 am


            First off, where does race come into this? And second, what makes you feel that when I wrote the word ‘abuse’ I was denouncing the occasional use of ‘drugs’ of any kind, as abusive to the system?

            So to begin with you have clearly got an agenda here. And I do not.

            When I wrote abuse I was addressing just that, abuse of the self when taking ‘drugs’ of any kind, to the destruction of same. And then expecting society to pick up the tab for it both financially and emotionally.

            And for the rest of your post, you appear to me to be looking for the kind of discussion that is not addressing the issues I seek to. Which is seriously questioning the issue on a cross the board level. I am not here for a fight with you about who and what abuse is, as I don’t have the time or the inclination for a circle engagement of that kind.

    • Jake
      25/01/2012 at 12:42 pm

      Dave H, Humans have used drugs for millennia and it hasn’t stopped us progressing. For an idea of what full CONTROL would look like visit this excellent publication by Transform Drug Policy Foundation

      Drugs can be dangerous, which is why we need quality controls, safe-usage guidelines, age limits and compassionate health care for people who do run into problems with them. Our current policy of prohibition is both not able to provide any of these real control systems but in addition uses its own failure (addicts, death/disease and crime) as justification for more of the same. It is, by definition, insanity.

      We should not oppress, stigmatise or punish someone for using e.g. cannabis or cocaine, absent harm to others, any more than we should for alcohol or caffeine. The world will move to an evidence-based policy soon enough, because, after 50 years of international failure, Human rights abuses, death, disease and trillions of pounds/dollars wasted, this policy just cannot go on – especially as it has not achieved ONE of its stated aims….

  2. 25/01/2012 at 11:11 am

    I find it rather cynical the way we, consuming countries, have completely ignored what has been happening on the other side of the drug market, the supply (production and distribution) of drugs. For we have decided, instead, that despite the havoc our demand for drugs under the current prohibitionist regime is creating in drug producing countries, what matters is what happens at home.

    As it happens, a number of countries such as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, among many others, have in a way “quasi legalised” the demand for drugs. They have de jure or de facto depenalised or decriminalised the personal consumption of some drugs. In the case of marijuana, some countries have also “quasi legalised” the supply too by allowing users to grow a number of marijuana plants in their homes and for their own consumption, by tolerating the operation of so called “cannabis social clubs”, or by authorising the cultivation of marijuana to supply dispensaries where consumption on medical grounds is allowed.

    In the US, for instance, the consumption of marijuana for medical reasons is allowed in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the value of marijuana produced in the US to supply the domestic demand is estimated to be over $35 billion, making it the nation’s largest cash crop.

    You would be forgiven for thinking that countries that have “quasi legalised” the consumption or the domestic production of drugs would be the leaders in favour of changes in the current drugs policies regarding the supply by major producing and distributing countries, too. Well, you could not be more wrong, I am afraid.

    Rather than using our enormous political and economic clout to reform the international conventions that sustain Prohibition, we keep supporting, promoting and enforcing the illegality of the supply of drugs. And by blaming it on the existing laws, we have been able to walk away from our responsibility for the atrocious consequences it has had on producing countries.

    I do not have any doubts that harm reduction policies, decriminalisation or depenalisation of the demand for drugs are sensible and necessary policies. But if we were serious about tackling the so-called drug problem, we should be accompanying those same policies with equally sensible policies towards the supply of drugs.

    Moreover, I will go as far as to say that the onus is on us, drug consuming countries in the developed world. We should be the ones promoting the Legalisation & Regulation of the supply. We should be the ones making all the noises calling for a change in the national and international legislation on drugs. We should be spearheading the movement seeking to legalise the production and distribution of all drugs.

    Gart Valenc
    twitter: @gartvalenc

  3. 25/01/2012 at 11:36 am

    As far as drugs are concerned, we need to ask ourselves, what sort of “view of the world” or more generally, what sort of moral code is consistent with the prohibition regime and the War on Drugs policies?

    When Prohibition was trumpeted as the panacea to society ‘oldest vice’, it’s goal was to allow us to live in a drug-free world. Well, fifty years later we are still waiting for the utopia to materialise. Meanwhile, all Prohibition and the War on Drugs have delivered is utter dystopia: massive incarceration, corruption, destruction of democratic institutions, thousands upon thousands of killings, intimidation and execution of journalists, judges, politicians and anybody brave enough to question the corrupting and murderous practices of the drug trafficking gangs that control the US$320,000 millions the illegal drug market generates in revenue every year, that’s right, EVERY YEAR.

    What sort of moral code encourages a government to support Prohibition, a regime whose “positive” results (i.e. cessation of consumption and elimination of supply) are negligible, whereas its negative effects are of such extent that people with a different moral code, or at least a more consistent one, would not hesitate to consider them a price too high to pay, were them the result of any other policy but the War on Drugs.

    What sort of moral code makes a government believe that is right to wage a war with such appalling consequences: almost 50,000 killings in the past five years in Mexico alone, people sentenced to death in Asia and the Middle East, systematic violation of human rights, extrajudicial killings, … and the list goes on and on and on. There is no doubt in my mind that were such levels of criminal acts been happening as a result of policies other than the War on Drugs, people with a different moral code, or at least a more consistent one, would be condemning them as crimes against humanity.

    Gart Valenc
    twitter: @gartvalenc

  4. Twm O'r Nant
    25/01/2012 at 3:00 pm

    What sort of moral code

    Is it that a prostitute would rather sell drugs first then her body? No dilemma there.

    <p<What sort of moral code
    has a “health” service which pays vastly excessive sums of money for death dealing narcotics, whilst banning any kind of narcotic drug use, or purchase, by private individuals?

    The Moral Code is crass consumerism which may well be baulked by legalising the use, but making more unlawful still, the whole-sale delivery of them.

    Leave enforcement to our entirely competent enforcers.

  5. Jake
    26/01/2012 at 11:43 am


    You were asking questions as to whether drug abuse rates were the same in the Aimish/Jewish communities, I was merely relaying some knowledge of the other side of the argument – ‘if’ religion or culture can prevent (some) drug use to an extent, you also have to look at the factors that exasserbate it don’t you? When drug use is no different between certain ‘races’ but arrest rates are (‘Black people six times more likely to face drug arrest’ -, we cannot ignore the other side of the arugment. It could be argued that persecution is preventing some cultures, or ‘races’ from tackling proplematic drug use just because of centuries old stigma and prejudice. And again, we have to pick up the tab both financially and emotionally.

    We currently spend ~£18bn a year fighting drugs, breaking up families and preventing mothers and fathers from getting jobs (due to a criminal record) for doing nothing other than relaxing with a different drug to ones deemed ‘legal’ by the government (on a purely arbitrary classification system). We breed distrust of the police, lose tax revenue and aid the spread of Human rights abuses and diseases here and abroad in the name of saving people from themselves. Those costs, both emotionally and financially, are far greater than a regulated regime run in the interests of our fellow citizens health instead of perceiving them as criminals out to destroy society with their innate ‘selfish drug-seeking behavior’.

    For more info on the costs of the drug war, please have a look at this site I think this site addresses some of the issues you are talking about.

    • Lord Blagger
      26/01/2012 at 2:55 pm

      Most will have been jailed for thieving.

      Even then they will have committed 10s, 100s of crimes before getting locked away.

    • maude elwes
      28/01/2012 at 2:04 pm

      No, what I wrote in essence was, are the effects or the need for drug taking the same in communities that remain outside the majority in a society where drug taking is rampant?

      The Amish and ‘orthodox’ Jewish community was simply a couple of examples of those who protect their people from political change by remaining separate from the community around them. My thoughts were not meant to be associated particularly with religion. So perhaps it was not a good selection.

      And I am still dumbfounded by your reference to race. Drug taking is not a racial issue, is it?

      Are you trying to use this subject to make a statement about jail cells accommodating more of one race than another? If you are you should raise that quite separately from this matter.

      As Blagger says, being incarcerated is not necessarily related to drug taking or abuse. How you research that issue is by asking how many crimes were carried out in any particular offense and how many of those crimes were committed by whichever race it is you want to raise as an issue.

      Example, how many robberies were carried out. How many of those robberies were committed by ‘choose your race.’ If say, 500 robberies were carried out by Chinese looking individuals, and in prison for those crimes we have 500 Chinese. Would it make sense to say I don’t feel it is right to have so many Chinese people in jail whilst we only have two Indians. Lets increase the arrest and incarceration of Indians to balance the books on race. As we must be seen not to ‘look’ as if we are singling out one group as opposed to another.

      If you do believe that, then are you living in the real world or stuck on some kind of idiot planet where common sense is left in the entry module.

      Your obsession with race here on this subject is peculiar. You should write and ask one of the Lords to open a thread on this matter of imprisoned races if it is so all consuming to you.

    • Jake
      30/01/2012 at 11:30 am

      @Maude, I take your point on ‘communities’. It appears I conflated that with ‘race’. I believe you were predominantly describing communal forces that prevent people from taking drugs – or have lower/different rates of drug abuse? Some of the communities, by definition, are very insular and have very strong/rigid belief systems which are impractical to expand to the whole UK population (which I think you recognise), but that is not to say lessons can’t be learnt from ‘community spirit’ and preventing drug taking.

      “Drug taking is not a racial issue” was precisely my point. The second point was that certain ‘communities’ are victimised more than others even when rates of drug taking/abuse do not differ. As much as I don’t believe in discrimination (and in general, quotas) I also don’t believe in positive discrimination (the lock up more “choose your race” line of thought). We are all equal and our Human rights should be respected equally regardless of our social status/wealth etc. If not, if there are exceptions, then there is no point in having fundamental rights.

      The problem with our drug policy is firstly that it doesn’t learn any of the lessons from communities that have lower problem rates i.e. if someone in an Amish community said they had a drinking problem, would they throw them in jail and hinder the rest of their life with some sort of ‘record’? The second is that it arbitrarily targets and penalises some communities more than others, perpetuating a detrimental cycle that is of no benefit to society overall.

      Prohibition doesn’t allow us to learn from any communities, it drags down the thought process, instils fear of questioning the status-quo and doesn’t fund research into ‘alternatives’, only cheery-picked evidence that reinforces a particular viewpoint/ideology. We refuse to learn from the international community “The Home Office has not made any formal assessment of the experience of Portugal and other European states of the decriminalisation of drugs for personal and non-commercial use.” whilst having a litany of negative and unintended consequences. Ten years of a policy that has produced measurable success, why don’t we even look into it?!

      We NEED to learn from the international community, but we refuse. We need to learn from more local communities but we refuse. We leave a trail of emotional and financial destruction, both here and abroad. We remove more and more civil liberties… But we do not prevent drug use, we do not help those who abuse drugs, we do not prevent kids getting hold of drugs, we do not rehabilitate, we do not increase the price of drugs (as a deterrent) and the cowards at the top refuse to even look at other ‘control’ methods for fear of producing the ‘wrong answer’. It is an international disgrace. People are suffering needlessly because of political cowardice perpetuating policies based on a proven-wrong ideology instead of evidence.

  6. Gareth Howell
    26/01/2012 at 3:27 pm

    Black people six times more likely to face drug arrest’

    “Arrested and convicted people six times more likely to face drug pushers”,(in prison) which would be more seriously indictable.

  7. Frank W. Summers III
    27/01/2012 at 3:05 pm

    Lord Norton,
    My principal objection tho the health approach, I have a few, is that I truly do believe this is an international issue which will need a treaty system as part of the solution. The Home Office presumably has some expertise in such matters. However, the process led by my own country (in large degree) has been sufficiently bad that I readily understand some reasons for people fleeing any effort at a real international reform of drug laws and enforcement.

  8. Twm O'r Nant
    31/01/2012 at 7:03 pm

    A Welsh rugby player had heart surgery immediately after coming off the pitch for heart failure, last week.

    A number of soccer football players have died suddenly in recent years from sudden heart failure.

    Does this coincide with a huge increase in the sale of that heavily used drug, both phramacologically and in the kitchen, called Coffee?

    The gentle flavour and perfume of weak tea has a lot to recommend it. The purpose of boiling the water for the infusion, is to boil the water, not to improve the infusion, wherever you are in the world.


  9. Tom
    03/03/2012 at 5:51 pm

    Lord Norton, I would be interested to hear what your view is on what Keith Vaz said a few weeks ago as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing on drugs on Tuesday 21st February 2012. If you look at Question 138 he clearly states that “Chair: Professor Strang, thank you very much for giving evidence to this Committee this morning on our inquiry into drugs. The policy area of drugs is going to move to the Department of Health. Do you think this is a positive development?”

    So it would appear to me to mean that the decision to move drug policy has already been made.

    Any thoughts or further insight would be welcome.

    The link to the document is here :

    • Tom
      16/03/2012 at 12:41 pm

      Really surprised this hasn’t drawn any comment, it is so relevant.

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