Matthew Norman: Rule by the right-wing press dooms any sensible debate on drugs

The primary issue here is one of political courage, or rather, its absence under fire. Any politician who dares to stand against the tabloids quickly undares

Wednesday 30 March 2011 00:00 BST

Not one of us, nor any of our children, nor any of their children, nor anyone at all even unto the seventh generation, will live to see it dawn. But one day, humanity will look back on "the war against drugs" with a shiver of the revulsion induced today by slavery, the criminalisation of homosexuality and other historic high points of legalised dementia.

For the unforeseeable future we're stuck with it, as the reaction to an attempt to create clearer penal distinctions between drug lords and their junior employees yesterday made clear.

A group entitled the Sentencing Council, possibly in homage to Paul Weller's post-Jam band, proposes reducing the punishment for runners caught with relatively small amounts of drugs, and particularly for women coerced into acting as mules. In certain circumstances, it advises, such people should be spared jail even when the substances are Class A.

The views of the public are sought between now and 20 June, but any of you selfless souls tempted to chip in are hereby advised to save the effort, and restrict yourselves to a shrug of defeatist indifference. Since both The Sun and the Daily Mail have already addressed these proposals on their front pages in starkly unflattering terms, my actuarial calculations establish that there is a 27 times higher probability of the Steptoes' horse Hercules winning the Grand National, the Derby and the British Grand Prix than of the Government accepting the tiniest fraction of them.

From the tabloid response to its work, you would be excused for assuming that the Sentencing Council comprises, among others, Pete Doherty, Kate Moss, Keith Richards, Boy George, George Michael, the late Kurt Cobain, the later Dr Timothy Leary, the even later Aldous Huxley, Robert Downey Jnr, Cheech, Chong and Charlie Sheen.

The truth is less exciting, this hardly being the gang your kid would care to get stuck with at an illegal rave. Its president is that Fabergé of judicial eggs Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge – Judge Judge to his chums, and a rare exception to the rule that states: "Beware the double namer" (Humbert Humbert, Sirhan Sirhan, etc). Its chairman is senior appellate judge Sir Brian Leveson, and its members include a professor of criminology, a JP, and Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer.

These people do not strike me as anarchist-dopehead sleepers who inserted themselves into the establishment long ago with the ultimate goal of giving drug barons carte blanche to corrupt the young with impunity. It may be that Judge Judge and Mr Starmer were among those throwing things in central London on Saturday, convinced by choicest hallucinogens that Lucy, having falling from the sky, was imprisoned behind the glass frontage of Fortnum & Mason, and needed rescuing. At this early stage in the Met's investigations, it would be folly to rule anything out.

Let's take a punt, however, and presume that they were not; that they and their colleagues are a sober, well-meaning, intelligent and cautious bunch who understand the issues at least as well as headline writers; and that if, after exhaustively studying the evidence, they have concluded that prison isn't invariably the most effective way to punish tiny cogs in turbo-charged drug engines, they deserve a respectful hearing.

But then so did Professor David Nutt, the world- renowned expert on the effect of drugs on the mind – or neuropsychopharmacologist for the ambitious Scrabble player – whom Alan Johnson peremptorily and disgracefully sacked for misinterpreting his role as a governmental adviser on drugs by advising the government on drugs.

Then, as previously with Labour's reclassification of cannabis to Class B despite its drop in usage during its short stint as Class C, and as again now, the substances and their relative dangers were barely a secondary issue. The logic in favour of abandoning this futile "war against drugs", with its indolent rhetoric and self-defeating hypocrisy, is, after all, overwhelming.

Pumped full of ecstasy, which was developed as a truth drug, no senior politician would deny that the current strategy criminalises the sick by forcing them to crime, and wastes huge quantities of public money that should be diverted to rehabilitation and police time better spent elsewhere; that heroin in its pure form is among the least damaging substances available to humanity, blah blah, that it is lunacy bordering wickedness to allow people to die through overdosing or rat poisoning when they could cheaply be prescribed the medical version, plapp, plapp, plapp, that cannabis, though not without risks, is infinitely less damaging to the body than tobacco and alcohol, yada yada yada, and all the other time-honoured verities that have become clichés because they are true.

They are irrelevant to this debate because the primary issue here is one of political courage, or rather its absence, under fire. Any politician who dares to stand against the tabloids – whose line is not medical, social or criminal but entirely moral, and which would oppose any relaxation of the law even if every drug were categorically proved to be beneficial to health – quickly undares. Once, inevitably while in opposition, David Cameron took the enlightened approach, while Alan Duncan advocated the end of prohibition in a book before undergoing the usual epiphany.

The Sentencing Council, though you wouldn't know it from the front-page hysteria, is not peddling the libertarian line so briefly advanced by Little Alan. It is merely suggesting that sentence guidelines be tweaked to keep from jug those who either don't deserve to be inside or might be rescued from the recidivism a prison term so often confers. And the moment this series of mild proposals pops its head into view, it is smashed to smithereens by the red-top mallet like the well-named Cracky Crab in the end-of-the-pier amusement machine.

In 1974 Edward Heath went to the polls asking: "Who governs Britain?", and was answered that it certainly wasn't him. No PM since has been bold enough to pose that question, but when it comes to the intersect between social and penal policy, what need to ask could there be? The right-wing tabloids, now gunning remorselessly for Ken Clarke over his noble efforts to reform the prison system, govern Britain – and as long as our political leaders shake with terror at their every reductio ad dementiam, so they always shall.

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