Leading article: Mr Ainsworth is right: the war has failed

Friday 17 December 2010 01:00

It is depressing how stale and weary have been the responses to the suggestion from the former Labour Cabinet minister, Bob Ainsworth, that many recreational drugs should be decriminalised. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, issued a swift denunciation of the former minister's "irresponsible ideas" saying they did not reflect the view of the leader, party or public. When the Prime Minister's office was asked whether Mr Ainsworth's ideas merited consideration, it issued a one-word answer: No.

Mr Ainsworth is not some naïve backbencher. He was the Home Office minister for drugs policy under Tony Blair, and his time in the job, he now says after due reflection, suggests that the old, prohibitive approach cannot succeed. He was immediately backed yesterday by the former chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd. It tells us something about the nature of the public debate about recreational drugs that men of this level of experience can only say what they really think after they have left office – or before they gain it: David Cameron took part in a thoughtful review of drugs policy in opposition. But such is the hysteria about drugs in Britain that there is no political space for a reasoned debate by those in authority.

And yet there is a powerful case for reform. Prohibition forces the production and supply of drugs into the hands of criminals. If our drugs policy is to be consistent with the principle of minimising social harm, there is a strong argument for taking them out of the hands of the dealers and placing them in the hands of the medical profession.

The decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal shows that harmful drug use does not necessarily increase when prohibition is dropped, and that there can be significant savings in the cost of law enforcement and improvements in public health. Here in the UK, there was no evidence of an increase in cannabis use when that drug was temporarily reclassified downwards. What we need is some evidence-based debate rather than this blustering outrage. The war on drugs does not work, as Mr Ainsworth says, and so we need some fresh thinking.

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