by Phillip Smith
The British government has once again ignored the advice of the government panel empowered to advise it on drug policy issues and is maintaining a stalwart, if terse, defense of the continuing criminalization of drug users. The Conservative-led coalition government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron -- a one-time legalization advocate -- is rejecting a renewed call from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to decriminalize drug possession.
The ACMD is a panel of experts created by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act "to keep drug misuse in the United Kingdom under review, and to advise the government on measures for preventing misuse and social problems arising from it." But both Labor and Tory governments have ignored the advice of the ACMD when that body has recommended reformist measures, whether it be downgrading the seriousness of marijuana offenses, properly scheduling drugs like Ecstasy, or, in the present case, calling for decriminalization as a smarter approach to drug possession.
The ACMD had called on the government to move toward decriminalization last year in its submission to the national drug strategy consultation, concluding that persons arrested for the possession of any drug "should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses." Because that advice did not fit the "tough on crime" politics of the Tories, it was ignored.
This month, the ACMD reiterated its support for decriminalization, forcing the government to react. The venue for the renewed call was the ACMD's submission to the Sentencing Council, another governmental body charged with reviewing sentencing practices. Oddly enough, whether drug possessors should even face criminal sanctions was beyond the Sentencing Council's remit, but that didn't stop the ACMD from making its point, using language almost identical to that in last year's national drug strategy submission.
"The ACMD also believes that there is an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who have committed an offence by possession of drugs," the advisors wrote. "For people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education / awareness courses with concomitant assessment for treatment needs, or possibly other, more creative civil punishments… Such approaches may be more effective in reducing repeat offending and reducing costs to the criminal justice system. There should be 'drugs awareness' courses to which those found in possession can be referred as a diversion. These could also be available to those being conditionally cautioned where there is evidence of drug use."
The ACMD noted that similar diversion programs are used other sorts of offenses, such as traffic.
Media notice of the ACMD's recommendation forced the government to respond, but the Home Office was having none of that decriminalization talk. In a statement released Friday, the Home Office made clear it was not listening to its drug advisors.
"We have no intention of liberalizing our drugs laws," the Home Office said. "Drugs are illegal because they are harmful -- they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities. Those caught in the cycle of dependency must be supported to live drug-free lives, but giving people a green light to possess drugs through decriminalization is clearly not the answer. We are taking action through tough enforcement, both inland and abroad, alongside introducing temporary banning powers and robust treatment programs that lead people into drug-free recovery."
But that position, arrived at by the coalition-dominating Conservatives, is leaving some open space between them and their junior partners, the Liberal Democrats. Just last month, the Liberal Democrats passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana. Still, with Labor continuing to pursue a feckless policy of not touching drug reform, especially after its debacle with downgrading, then upgrading marijuana offenses, the Liberal Democrats are isolated on the issue among the country's major parties.
But, given the rising clamor for more humane and effective drug policies, not only from the AMCD and governing coalition junior partners, but also from the Global Commission on Drug Policy and an ever-increasing number of civil society groups, it appears the Conservative government's response to demands for positive change amount to clapping its hands over its hears and chanting, "Nyah! Nyah! We can't hear you!" Except you know they're saying that because they actually do hear you.