A glimpse at Tory drug policy?

May 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs | 5 Comments

If you want to see what a future Tory government’s approach to drug policy might be, you could do worse than having a peek at a new report that’s just been published by The Centre for Policy Studies. Entitled ‘The Phoney War on Drugs’, author Kathy Gyngell essentially argues that the reason Labour’s attempts to curb drug use have failed is because they’re just not trying hard enough.

The report takes aim at the government’s long-standing policy of harm reduction, which works on the presumption that whilst there isn’t the public will for full decriminalisation, there’s also a limit to what a state can do to prevent people from putting poison in their bodies. With this in mind, the most prudent course of action is to reduce the social, economic, crime & health costs of drug addiction, and this inevitably leads to a greater emphasis on treatment and prescribing drug substitutes like methodone.

Gyngell argues that this focus on harm reduction has distracted from the state’s more pressing concern of stopping drugs from entering the country in the first place, being more dilligent in prosecuting dealers/users and promoting a culture of abstinence (a words she uses 30 times, fact fans) and zero tolerance. Naturally,the solution to this drug problem – as with every problem ever – can be found in the evergreen utopia that is Sweden (seriously, doesn’t that country do anything wrong?!)

There’s a lot to unpack here, and certainly far more than my blogging time allows, but there are a few observations I’d want to make.

First, the solutions offered here seem to be heavily reliant on greater statism. To improve our ability to stop drugs from entering the country will probably require more legislative action, increased use of police surveillance and escalating the state’s border patrols – all of which will pose profound questions for people concerned about individual liberty, the power of government and the potential misuse of anti-terror legislation to catch drug smugglers.

On top of that, it’s not likely to be cheap. Even if enforcing prohibition more effectively were to prove successful (by no means a certainty), you’d probably still see short to medium-term increases in state spending to improve our police’s ability to stop drugs and build new prisons. With all that in mind, you’re left wondering – as Pete Guither does – how this could ever be reconciled with CPS’ supposed mission statement of encouraging freedom, responsibility and limited government.

Second, I feel like Gyngell picks a soft target by simply attacking government policy. Even those on the opposite side of the drugs argument can see that current policy is mostly just an exercise in timorous, incrementalist bullshit, so attacking it from either left or right would’ve been pretty easy even for the most mediocre of researchers. No, the true test of her piece would’ve been how well it stands up to the counter-argument from anti-prohibitionists that you could reduce crime, health & other social costs currently associated with drug use/addiction by legalising, taxing and regulating those substances. Gyngell shies away from having that fight, which is a little bit of a missed opportunity for all concerned.

The reason I suggested that this report may one day inform the Conservatives’ approach to drugs is that I can only see this area going one of three ways. Once in power, Cameron’s government can either continue a Labour policy which not too many people on either side think has been a resounding success, decide that prohibition has been a costly folly, or decide that the state still hasn’t been tough enough on drug users/dealers. Out of all three, I suspect the latter conclusion will be the most convenient to reach, and if they do, god only knows what happens next.


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  1. Now just what might we have already enacted to assist the war on drugs as well the ability to freeze all the drug gangsters’ finances? Got it – all the anti terror laws which are tailor made for just this eventuality. No matter that the soft policies do work; no matter that in the end legalisation and control of drugs will come; no chance of actually asking why drugs are illegal anyway. When elected (I was going to write if) this will last 3 to 4 years and the point will finally get home that supression of the drugs trade has not worked and w ewill be back where we are now with authoritarian law enforcement entrenched and a huge expenditure of money for nothing. The stupid party hasn’t gone away.

  2. Is there any hope that the libertarians in the Tory party will urge Cameron towards sanity on this issue? Regrettably, I think not- witness Sayeeda Warsi’s grandstanding on khat & similar outspewings.

  3. Cheers for the comments, guys.

    Asquith, you ask a good question about what influence the libertarian wing will have on Tory policymaking. My guess, like yours, is not very much, but I suspect some of them will be pacified by reductions on the size of the state, ‘clampdowns’ on welfare & such. That said, I must admit to not being too familiar with how far this Tory libertarianism extends; is there really an appetite for radical liberal reform such as on the issue of drugs, or are they happy to leave it at cuts in tax & spending, and covering up speed cameras? The proof will be in the governing, I guess, but ConHome’s recent survey of would-be MPs indicates a membership which is more old-style social conservative than libertarian, and social conservatism often relies on the state to fulfill its goals.

  4. I am planning to do a post on this report pretty soon. It seems like there is alot in it that seems pretty incongrous with what has actually been happening.

    The main weakness of this report is that it does not take on the anti-prohibitionist argument. The idea that Labour’s pitiful foray into harm reduction is proof enough against abandoning the war on drugs is a bit embarassing really. The logic just doesn’t follow.

  5. Left Outside,

    Indeed, and I’ll look forward to reading your take.

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