The last time a senior Tory announced a crackdown on middle class drug use at a Conservative Party conference it turned into a rather bad trip.
Eighteen years ago the shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe proposed £100 fixed penalties for anyone caught possessing “just one joint” of cannabis. “No more getting away with just a caution, no more hoping that a blind eye will be turned,” she thundered to delegates in Bournemouth. “Parents want it. Schools need it. Our future demands it. The next Conservative government will do it.”
But it turned out her colleagues weren’t so keen. Eight shadow cabinet ministers subsequently cheerfully relayed to newspapers that they’d smoked marijuana while at university, leaving Widdecombe’s policy and her political credibility looking more wrecked than Hunter S Thompson’s hotel room.
Back in 2000, Sajid Javid was a fresh-faced investment banker at Deutsche Bank. But today he seems to have got a case of the Widdecombes.
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“We need to make people understand that if you are a middle class drug user and you sort of think, ‘Well, I’m not doing any damage, I know what I’m doing,’ well, there’s a whole supply chain that goes into that,” the home secretary told the Daily Mail, citing the repellent“county lines”drugs trade, and associated exploitation of vulnerable children by criminal gangs.
“You are not innocent – no one is innocent if they are taking illegal drugs.”
We’re promised a Home Office “review” in which even “professionals” will be targeted.
When one is talking about any market, illegal drugs included, one does indeed have to consider the forces of supply and demand. Javid’s right about that. QCs and surgeons sniffing cocaine in the toilets of posh London clubs create demand just as surely as heroin addicts on a Bristol council estate or homeless spiceheads roaming around Manchester’s Piccadilly station. And the demand stimulates a lucrative and often violent black market supply industry.
So curb the demand and kill the supply? Once again we are reminded that a little bit of economics is a dangerous thing. The question is not whether demand drives supply – it clearly does – but how amenable demand, from all sections of society, will be to the kind of crackdown Widdecombe and now, apparently, Javid envisage. How “elastic” is consumption to new sanctions and enforcement?
The evidence suggests not very. The US government’s hardline “war on drugs” over the past 40 years has done nothing to reduce rates of substance abuse among the American public. Rather this inordinately expensive policy of prohibition has delivered mass incarceration and political destabilisation for countries like Colombia and Mexico.And there are other ways to reduce the social harm done by drug abuse, other ways to curb demand.
Not long after Widdecombe’s humiliation, the government in Lisbon embarked on an experiment. Rather than “cracking down”, in 2001 Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the personal use and possession of illicit drugs. The results are not entirely conclusive –but they are pretty encouraging. Drug use among the Portuguese population, which had been in the grip of a heroin addiction epidemic, seems to have been in decline over the past decade, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Drug use rates among 15- to 34-year-olds are now low relative to those in other European countries. The numbers of people seeking heroin and cocaine addiction treatment have slumped (although they have risen in the case of cannabis).
Overdose deaths have fallen. The drug-induced death rate in Portugal is now around three per million,five times lower than the EU average rate and 15 times lower than the rate here in the UK. There has been no upsurge in drug-related crime.
Widdecombe’s zero tolerance speech won “loud applause” from that Bournemouth conference hall 18 years ago. If Javid wants a better legacy than hers on drugs he should follow the evidence rather than the ideology.