Commons home affairs select committee says it is now-or-never moment for reform of UK drug policy
David Cameron should urgently set up a royal commission to consider all of the alternatives to Britain’s failing drug laws, including decriminalisation and legalisation, an influential cross-party group of MPs has concluded.
The Commons home affairs select committee says after taking evidence from all sides of the drug debate, including from Russell Brand and Richard Branson, that « now, more than ever » there is a case for a fundamental review of all UK drug policy. « This is a critical, now-or-never moment for serious reform, » they say.
The committee chair, Keith Vaz, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that a royal commission to look at every aspect of drugs policy and report back by 2015 is « not a big ask ».
But government sources were dismissive of the move to a royal commission as « simply not necessary », insisting drug use in Britain was at its lowest level since records began.
Among the recommendations contained in a report published on Monday, the MPs say Home Office and health ministers should be sent to Portugal to examine its system of replacing criminal penalties for drug use with a new emphasis on treatment. They say the Portuguese example clearly reduced public concern about drug use and was backed by all political parties and the police.
The MPs also suggest the British government should fund a detailed research project monitoring the recent legalisation of marijuana in the US states of Washington and Colorado and the proposed state monopoly of cannabis production and sale in Uruguay.
The committee visited Colombia, the US and Portugal as part of their year-long inquiry.
In the report the MPs say: « We recommend the establishment of a royal commission to consider the best ways of reducing the harm caused by drugs in an increasingly globalised world.
« In order to avoid an overly long, overly expensive review process, we recommend that such a commission be set up immediately and be required to report by 2015. »
Ministers should at the same time instigate a public debate in Britain on all the alternatives to current drug policy as part of the royal commission, recommends the report, Drugs: Breaking the Cycle. It says the government also needs to initiate a discussion within the United Nations commission on narcotic drugs, including the possibility of legalisation and regulation, to tackle and reduce the harm caused by the global drug trade at home and abroad.
Vaz told Today the report was not in favour of « legalising or decriminalising any drugs ».
« Consider what Kenneth Clarke said to the committee when he gave evidence that the war on drugs was lost, consider the fact that prisoners seem to acquire the habit of taking drugs while they’re in prison, and look at what is happening in countries like Portugal.
« Don’t get hysterical – we’re not suggesting ministers jump on a plane, go to Lisbon and start taking cannabis. We are suggesting that they look at what is happening all over the world. What this does not make the case for, and what we’re against, is legalising or decriminalising any drugs. We’re very, very clear about that.
« They’re giving people a choice there [in Portugal]. Portugal is quite different from the United Kingdom so there are lots of reasons why that might not work here. But they given people a choice, go into treatment or go into the criminal justice system, and the Portuguese, strong Catholic country, actually seem to be supporting this. The debate is no longer about whether or not they should do this, it basically is around funding … We’re not saying anything more than monitor the situation in Portugal, see if we can learn any lessons. »
The Home Office minister Jeremy Browne insisted the government was « open to new ways of thinking » but ruled out a royal commission « at this time ».
He told Today: « We are open-minded, we think it’s a decent, thoughtful, balanced report. We will consider it carefully. »
Browne added: « The home secretary has said she doesn’t think the royal commission is the answer at this time, but we are open to new ideas and evidence-based research to carry on reducing the harm caused by drugs in this country. »
Vaz warned this was a critical, now-or-never moment for serious reform. « If we do not act now, future generations will be crippled by the social and financial burden of addiction. »
The report follows a six-year study by the UK Drugs Policy Commission that called for decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and a new forum for all three main party leaders to reach a consensus on reform.
The report’s recommendations echo many of the findings of the committee’s last major inquiry into drugs in 2002, when Cameron was a member, which called for a less punitive approach to cannabis and ecstasy.