Bath Literature Festival: The Tory peer who told author - the PM wants to legalise drugs – he's just too scared to say so


Why do politicians "scuttle sideways like a startled crab" whenever the legalisation of drugs is mentioned? Three experts on the drugs trade trained their headlights on the crab today.

That striking phrase, Max Daly revealed, had been used by the Tory peer and ex-heroin user Lord Mancroft. The politician the peer had in mind was David Cameron.

"Cameron still thinks drugs ought to be legalised," Lord Mancroft had told Daly and his co-author Steve Sampson in the House of Commons bar. "He was just too afraid of the press reaction to say so."

Daly – author of Narcomania: A Journey Through Britain's Drug World – and his fellow panellists then conjured up a world few politicians want to believe in. A world where the authorities have no hope of winning their "war on drugs" and are complicit in exposing large sections of society to unnecessary health risks.

"It's criminally irresponsible for the Government to have no quality control in such a huge area," said Mike Power, author of the forthcoming Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution that is Changing How the World Gets High.

"The argument," said Sampson, "should be that we're all in this together – the participants who buy drugs, the commercial market that sells them and the Government that's trying to control them. Policy at the moment is being made without looking at the market." Control was, as a result, just what the Government doesn't have.

One female drugs officer had admitted to Daly that there was a complete mismatch of resources between the police and criminals.

The police had a limited budget, whereas the cartels were enormously rich. "She had been told not to make arrests after 3pm because the force couldn't afford the overtime!"

The discussion revealed that the problems are ever-changing. It's not just that bans drive the emergence of new – often more toxic and dangerous – designer drugs, pumped out in huge quantities, often from the Far East. ("It's difficult to frame a law that captures such a vast variety of chemistry," said Power.) It's also that users now buy their drugs "like books from Amazon", over untraceable channels in the "Dark Web" – using software originally developed by the US Navy to ensure complete anonymity.

Sampson said it would be easy to research a visit to Bath on the internet and find your synthetic cannabis of choice. "It's very reliable," he said.

What's on today

11.15am 1922: Constellation of Genius. Kevin Jackson explores the frenzy of innovation in the year both Ulysses and The Waste Land were published.

1pm Violent Conflict. The novelist Aminatta Forna talks to rights researcher Ben Rawlence and Somali expert James Fergusson on Africa's most dangerous places.

6.15pm Bad Pharma. Ben Goldacre unpicks claims made by drugs firms.