The Big Question: Do we need a new debate about relaxing drugs policy in Britain?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Today, the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) publishes a report proposing the downgrading of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or "Ecstasy" from a Class A to Class B substance with the same legal penalties for possession and dealing as crack-cocaine and heroin. Only last month, however, the Home Office reiterated its intention to maintain the drug's status as Class A – on 4 January – so the report is likely to have very little effect on government policy. It comes hot on the heels of the ACMD's recommendation that cannabis should remain a Class C drug, even though the Government reclassified it as a Class B substance last month. Both drug debates expose the growing chasm between the Government and their scientific advisers, a point underscored by the recent furore concerning the head of the Advisory Council Professor David Nutt and the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith – who herself used cannabis in her youth.

What did Professor Nutt do wrong?

In an article for the latest edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology Professor Nutt stated: "There is not much difference between horse riding and Ecstasy," explaining that horse riding accounts for more than 100 deaths a year while Ecstasy use is linked to some 30 deaths a year – up from 10 a year in the early 1990s. The point he was exploring was why certain practices are considered acceptable by society and others are not. "This attitude," he wrote, "raises the critical question of why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use".

These seemingly innocuous questions were greeted by outrage. The Home Secretary called on him to apologise to families who have lost loved ones to Ecstacy – though not those who have lost loved ones to horse riding – and the ACMD moved to distance itself from the comments. On Monday he issued a statement saying: "I am sorry to those who may have been offended by my article. I would like to apologise to those who have lost friends and family due to Ecstasy use."

Was the Home Secretary's response reasonable?

Plenty of people think not. Danny Kushlick, head of policy at Transform, the drug think tank, argues that Jacqui Smith is helping to close down public debate on drugs: "The first casualty of any war is truth and the war on drugs is no exception. The Church of Prohibition is based on faith and a perverse idea of creating security, especially for young people. It is so overwhelmingly counterproductive that only propaganda can sustain support for it. Consequently, anyone who throws honesty, truth, reality or evidence into the debating ring must be vilified as being a traitorous heretic."

Have these kind of attacks happened before?

Yes. Three years ago the Chief Constable of North Wales Police, Richard Brunstrom, stated that Ecstacy was "no more dangerous than aspirin" and that he would "campaign hard" for heroin to be legalised. He also stated that drugs laws were out of date and that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be replaced by a new "Substance Misuse Act". There were immediate and repeated calls for his resignation. Other police chiefs have argued that too much time is spent dealing with cannabis use. Last year, Simon Byrne, Merseyside's assistant chief constable and ACPO spokesman on policing cannabis, said forces had agreed with the Government's original decision to downgrade the drug because of the "disproportionate time spent by frontline officers in dealing with offenders in possession of small amounts of cannabis".

So is prohibition working?

Probably not. The UK has one of the most punitive sentencing structures for drugs in Europe. The possession of an illegal drug is punishable by a prison sentence of between two and seven years. It is very difficult to establish how effective this policy is. Since 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was enacted, there has never been any rigorous official assessment of its efficacy. What we do know is that 30 years ago there were around 1,000 "hard" drug addicts. Today there are around 270,000.

Where do the political parties stand?

The Government, though previously committed to the downgrading of cannabis, has now uprated it. The thrust of Home Office drugs policy, however, is the identification of users and pushers through neighbourhood policing, and improving prison treatment programmes. It also seeks to extend international agreements to intercept drugs and help addicts to complete treatment.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats seek to re-classify cannabis as a Class C drug, and Ecstasy as a Class B drug. They also want to end imprisonment as a punishment for possession for own use of any Class B or C drug.

The current aim of Conservative drugs policy is to pursue an effective abstinence-based approach, weaning hard-drug addicts off methadone through residential rehabilitation. However, the Tory leader David Cameron once had a more flexible approach. In 2002, while a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he co-authored a review of UK drug policy which recommended: "that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma." Mr Cameron is now not persuaded by legalisation.

Do we need a new public debate on drugs?

Almost certainly. Danny Kushlick, at Transform, says, "Most drug 'debates' are mismatched discussions between those who are opposed to fundamental reform and those in favour of sensible evidence-based policy making – leading to much heat and little light. One way out of the impasse would be for the Government to commission an independent impact analysis of legal regulation and prohibition, in order to provide more grist for the debating mill."

Haven't we heard these kind of calls before?

All too frequently. To give one example, ahead of the 1998 UN session on drugs, an open letter was sent to the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan calling for an honest debate: "Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of 'surrendering'. But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies. Mr secretary- general, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies."

It was signed by more than 100 political and community leaders from around the world including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Labour MP Austin Mitchell. Asked if he believed that there had been any improvement, Mr Mitchell said yesterday: "Things have gone from bad to worse, there is no possibility of an honest discussion now. Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet and calls for a rational consideration of the drug laws gets it shot off and kicked around by a horde of lunatics."

Should we finally end the war on drugs?

Yes...

* Strict drugs policies needlessly turn law-abiding citizens into criminals

* The drugs war means that illegal psychotropic substances become more valuable than gold. And it becomes impossible to stop supply

* The war on drugs drives use and production underground, making it impossible for government to regulate

No...

* Recent polling indicates that the number of British young people taking recreational drugs is falling – the war is working

* We cannot legally condone the use of substances that have such detrimental effects on society

* If the Government weakens its stance then it is admitting defeat

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