Chris Bryant: I've tried to be liberal about drugs, but I just can't do it

A Political Life

Monday 12 December 2011 11:12

Amid the economic gloom, a tiny bit of good news: the number of heroin addicts in England has fallen from 329,000 to 306,000 in only two years.

That's still a whole load of misery, and the figures in Wales and Scotland are terrible, but at least things are going in the right direction.

I've tried very, very hard to be a liberal on drugs policy, honestly I have. I've listened attentively to arguments about harm reduction and the experiments in other countries. I've heard people out when they've furiously denounced the "war on drugs" in Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan. I'm even prepared to concede that alcohol does far more damage to far more people than any class A drug, which makes the present law anomalous at best or illogical at worst. But I still end up opposed to legalisation or decriminalisation.

In part I guess it's an emotional response. My mother was alcoholic and booze, assisted by paracetamol, killed her in 1993, so I've always been very timid around anything potentially addictive. It meant I was embarrassed when friends chewed E and danced their way through the night, and I still get quietly angry with the genteel metropolitan argument that says taking coke doesn't do anyone else any harm. Tell that to the thousands of displaced people in Colombia or the villagers caught in the crossfire between rival gangs in Mexico. The thugs that run the trade in heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran, Turkey and the Balkans would love Britain to be a safe haven for their money-laundering and corruption.

But my bottom line is that legalisation would almost certainly lead to larger numbers of people experimenting with, using and being abused by drugs. Many who disagree with me have cited the situation in Portugal, where the rate of HIV diagnosis and the number of drug-related deaths fell after 2000 when possession of small amounts of illicit substances was no longer a criminal offence. But the Portuguese example adds to my concern. The percentage of Portuguese people who use cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and cannabis has increased, not fallen – in the case of cocaine it has doubled.

All these substances mess you up, often in completely unpredictable ways. Cannabis, for instance. For some it acts as an emetic; for others it prevents nausea and vomiting. For some it increases intra-ocular pressure; for others it abates it (which can help with glaucoma). Recent research shows that in many cases (and in its stronger forms) regular use exacerbates a tendency towards paranoia and schizophrenia. As for heroin, it killed 791 people in England and Wales last year, and it is in the nature of the beast that it requires an all-absorbing dedication, financially and emotionally, that makes a productive life virtually impossible.

Of course we will never "win" the war on drugs. But a British surrender would be a mistake.

Big Society? No, it's just Welsh self-help

A brief constituency boast. Last Friday the Côr Meibion Morlais opened the doors on its beautifully rebuilt hall. Formerly known as the Morlais Glee Singers, the male voice choir began at a time when the Rhondda had 1,000 men for every 600 women. We all gave a lusty four-part harmony rendition of "Cwm Rhondda" and one of the younger members, Alex Britton, gave a solo performance of "Men of Harlech", dressed as one of the South Wales Borderers in Zulu. (The film starred local hero Sir Stanley Baker.) All this was in Ferndale, where an array of local groups has also combined to rebuild the rugby club.

Doubtless Cameron would call it the Big Society, but it's really the same social entrepreneurialism that built the miners' hospitals at the start of the last century. George Bush is supposed to have opined that the problem with the French economy is that there is "no word in French for entrepreneur", and a similar tale is told of the charming former Tory Welsh Secretary Peter Walker in relation to the Welsh economy and language. Both may be apocryphal, but maybe "Ferndale" is now the Welsh for entrepreneur.

Language as a method of misunderstanding

As an MP you move between different worlds all the time, so you have to be a bit of a linguist. For me that means translating in and out of Welsh English, or Wenglish, in which if you are ill you are "bad", quite ill "bad in bed" and really ill, "bad in bed under the doctor".

Parliament also needs translating into English. On Monday, for instance, we shall be debating the spookily named Protection of Freedom Bill, which has nothing to do with protecting freedom at all (although it will repeal the 1836 ban on getting married after 6pm and before 8am), and just before the recess we agreed to rename anti-terrorist curfews as "overnight residence requirements". It's not just Parliament. The artist Grayson Perry pointed out at the launch of his stunning exhibition this week that the British Museum sign that reads "beware elevated threshold" really means "mind the step".

Too much information in the Lords

Their lordships have been sitting this week, which reminds me of the debates on the Civil Partnerships Act in November 2004. Norman Tebbit was desperately keen to force Patricia Scotland, who was the Home Office minister in charge of the Bill, to admit that we were legislating for gay marriage, so he asked her directly what the difference was between civil partnership and civil marriage. I was standing, as MPs are allowed to do, at the bar of the House and remember the rather lengthy embarrassed pause before Patricia replied. "My Lords," she started, "one of the major differences is, of course,'' she paused again, "consummation."

There was a sharp intake of septuagenarian breath around the chamber as she got into her stride. "For a marriage to be valid, it has to be consummated by one man and one woman and there is a great deal of jurisprudence which tells one exactly what consummation amounts to – partial or impartial, penetration or no penetration." At which final word Tebbit collapsed.

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