A tipping point on drugs?

In a post about drugs I wrote a few weeks ago, I noted that there had been an apparent recent increase in the number of calls for decriminalisation, and now I’m wondering whether we might be reaching a point of critical debating mass on the issue where the number of people who just want the subject to be openly debated will be too large to be ignored.

Well, the little snowball continues to grow as it reaches the mass required. First, Mark Reckons has an interesting interview with former Conservative minister Phillip Oppenheim:

We have pretty much the tougest laws on drugs (and drink) in the EU and pretty much the worst problem – we treat people like kids and the result is they behave like kids, and criminality flourishes.

And also, though perhaps less surprisingly, Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute:

Dealing with drugs costs money. The Department of Health and the Strategy Unit put the costs of drug use at £15bn-£20bn per year. Although ministers and police officers have uttered tough phrases such as “zero tolerance”, drug crime has steadily increased, not diminished. When a policy achieves the opposite of what was intended, rarely is more of it needed.

And since the last time I wrote about this, several articles in the Guardian on the subject, including this Observer editorial.

The political fixation on drugs prohibition really took hold in the west in the 1960s as much from moral panic about a subversive counterculture as from analysis of the harm caused by particular drugs.

Since then, the law has tried to maintain a distinction between reputable and disreputable substances that neither users nor medical research recognise. Scientific attempts to classify drugs in terms of the harm they do – to the body and society – routinely place tobacco and alcohol ahead of cannabis and ecstasy. The point is not that the wrong drugs are banned, but that the law is nonsense to anyone with real knowledge of the substances involved.

But is anything like to happen? As Oppenheim notes, it’s hard for Cameron to get any traction against the Conservative grass roots on this issue and we’ve seen how Labour like to ignore evidence in favour of appearing tough. So, are we Lib Dems going to discuss it openly, or will we get the ‘we definitely think we should have a debate on this, but now’s not the right time’ response?

This is your poll on drugs

Very interesting results from a PoliticsHome poll on legalising drugs which show a majority of voters (52-43) in favour of legalising some or all drugs. The breakdown by party ID is interesting too, with a strong majority of Liberal Democrat supporters in favour (59-36), a majority amongst Labour voters (52-42) and a narrow majority against amongst Tory voters (45-52). The figure amongst those not listed as supporting one of the big three parties is 59-35 in favour, though it would be interesting (though it would require a poll with a bigger sample size, I guess) to see how that breaks down amongst the smaller parties – I would assume Green voters would tend to be in favour and UKIP ones against, but who knows which way BNP voters might break on this issue?

But beyond party IDs, the most interesting thing about the poll is the result, especially in a climate where the only voices in favour of changes to the drug laws I’ve seen in any mainstream media recently have been characters in The Wire. But then, it does match up interestingly with research in the US – though that was strictly on medical marijuana, not drugs generally – that shows how people in favour of it tend to believe they’re in a minority even when they’re not.

But the interesting question is where this support for legalisation has come from, especially as I’ve not noticed any lessening of the ‘all drugs are evil’ message recently. I suspect it’s down to a combination of factors, including the nature of the population changing as those more resistant to the idea die and being replaced by an older generation that came of age in the 60s. There’s also likely a drip-drip effect of ‘well, the sky didn’t fall there’ stories of drug legalisation and decriminalisation elsewhere, such as the medical marijuana states of the US and the Portuguese system of decriminalisation. Add to that, an undercurrent in the media that looks critically at the current system such as the aforementioned Wire, Misha Glenny’s McMafia, and this Bad Science article to name just three that sprung to mind while writing this post.

Of course, the big question is whether any politician might do something about the situation, given this polling. I suspect it still remains unlikely that anyone might stick their head over the parapet, but in this age of budget cuts and giant fiscal black holes, the potential tax revenues from legalisation might start to look attractive.