Drug law reform and the three card trick

This year Addaction celebrates its 50th anniversary and to commemorate the event, they are holding a series of lectures, of which this, given by Professor David Nutt on why we should decriminalise personal possession of all drugs, is the first. By Harry Shapiro.

It all started for Addaction on 24th February 1967 when Mollie Craven, mother of a heroin user, wrote a letter to The Guardian to help launch the Association for the Prevention of Addiction (APA)

At the time, drug culture was hitting the headlines as pop stars became caught up in controversy. Twelve days before Mollie’s letter appeared, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were arrested following a sting operation orchestrated by The News of the World. In June, loveable mop top McCartney admitted to having taken LSD while on 1st July the sentencing of The Stones prompted William Rees-Mogg then editor of The Times to pen the famous editorial ‘Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel’ criticising the sentencing as simply revenge because the defendants were young celebrities. And on 24th July that same paper ran a full page ad paid for by The Beatles and signed by many of the great and the good from all walks of life to declare the immorality of the cannabis laws. Since the first Dangerous Drugs Act 1920, all drugs were treated the same in law and it was only when the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force in 1973 that drugs were classified in the ABC harm categories.

The sixties have been either praised or condemned as the start of the ‘Permissive Society’, but that certainly did not apply to drugs. The laws on gambling and censorship were relaxed; the lives of women were improved by The Abortion Act, Equal Pay Act and reform of the divorce laws; racial discrimination was beginning to be addressed in law, the draconian law against homosexual acts was repealed and hanging abolished. Yet amphetamines and LSD were controlled, allowing premises to be used for cannabis smoking was outlawed and drug offence convictions soared.

Apart from one brief moment, the direction of travel ever since has been to ban an ever growing list of substances, most recently any non-excluded psychoactive substance under the Psychoactive Substances Act. It is the contradictions and paradoxes of our approach to mood altering drugs including alcohol that Professor Nutt addressed in his talk. The key points have been well rehearsed; for example many would agree that for young people to have travel or career plans blighted by a criminal record for simple possession is disproportionate. Less convincing for me anyway, was the claim the alcohol industry has been a bulwark against drug law reform even if Diageo do apparently host a fortnightly booze fest for Parliamentarians at the Palace of Westminster. I think the industry is more likely to try and compete than restrict so I am more convinced by the rumour that Big Booze introduced alcopops to entice young people back to alcohol during the early years of rave culture when many venues were alcohol-free.

In fact, the rapid rise of e-cigarettes gives a hint of what might happen if, in our capitalist free market economy, there was a legal, regulated regime for recreational drug use. Early adopter small-scale entrepreneurs would enter the arena and if successful would be swallowed up by Mr Bigs – Pharma, Tobacco and Alcohol and maybe some new Bigs as well, as they would be the only companies with the resources to comply with the onerous product safety requirements that would overwhelm a smaller operation. In the USA, tobacco giant Reynolds has just submitted 450,000 pages of evidence to bring Camel snus (a smokeless tobacco product) to market.

Probably the most telling point that Professor Nutt made was one that most people would not consider – that decisions about drug policy are often nothing to do with drugs but instead play to wider political expediences. He cited the infamous admission by Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman that the ‘War against Drugs’ was simply a ploy to attack the two main groups giving the government the most trouble; the civil rights and anti-war movements. Nixon also added a few noughts to the heroin user numbers for good measure.

He also highlighted the political background to Gordon’s Brown decision to reclassify cannabis from C back to B. The point is also covered by James Mills in his book Cannabis Nation that in his bid to win the support of Middle England, the PM struck a deal with Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail that among other policies, he would reclassify cannabis in exchange for the Mail’s support. I recently interviewed David Blunkett for my forthcoming book on the history of the UK drug scene and while not denying the point, thought Brown’s motives were slightly more nuanced and mentioned his former colleague’s rather dour Scottish background.

But Blunkett himself was not above playing party games with drugs as well. When he succeeded Jack Straw as Home Secretary, he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t just going to tow the Home Office line on every issue. Even though he says he was genuinely convinced by Brian Paddick/s Lambeth experiment to pull back on cannabis arrests in favour of more Class A drug enforcement, one way of making his mark and go against established policy was that slight but nonetheless headline grabbing tweak to the cannabis laws from B to C although he was forced by the police to increase penalties for dealing and drop the idea of making cannabis a non-arrestable offence.

Which leads to the heart of the matter raised in the Q/A session – what could be the tipping point for law reform in the UK? Professor Nutt thought that maybe medical cannabis could be the wedge in the door to reform and it is true that (despite the drug laws) there is research into the therapeutic potential of a range of currently controlled drugs such as ketamine, magic mushrooms and MDMA as well as cannabis. If subsequent products passed muster with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Medicines Regulatory Agency (MHRA) this could certainly blur the boundaries between legal and illegal use.

But significant reform of the drug laws would have to pass an even more robust, three-pronged stress test. Firstly, the scientific and clinical evidence of harms would need to be sound. But as Professor Nutt himself found out, like it or not, the science isn’t enough. Secondly, reform has to pass what might be called ‘the cultural’ test, in other words, would the general public wear it? And in reality that means support from the mainstream media (and the tabloids in particular) from which the public glean most of their information about drugs. And even if that was secured, thirdly, reform proposals need to pass the political test. So how could that happen?

For all the books, articles, op-eds, celebrity endorsements and the whole panoply of social media, the reality is that significant reform in the UK (as in most countries – States rights make the USA a special case) will rely on traditional top down political will. A mainstream political party would have to commit to reform (whatever that looks like) in their election manifesto and then either win with a comfortable majority or seriously hold the balance of power in a coalition to push reform through. And even then there will probably be some wider political agenda behind it because examples of acknowledging the human rights or civil liberties of drug users for their own sake are in very short supply.