Why we need an impact assessment of drugs policy (libdemvoice.org)

Yesterday, Labour MP and former minister, Bob Ainsworth came out strongly against drugs prohibition. He proposed an “Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act”, an “independent, evidence-based review, exploring all policy options” which was welcomed by Lib Dem MP Tom Brake. This is precisely one of the things that the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform (LDDPR) are calling for and I’d therefore like to give an overview of why an impact assessment is needed and is something that all can support.

1. One has never been done despite strong reasons for concern
Back in 1971, there were no ‘impact assessments’ of new policies such as the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then there have of course been a raft of unintended consequences from prohibition and no decrease – quite the reverse – in drug consumption. We now have decades of experience from around the world to work with. Articles of faith such as the ‘deterrent effect’ do not hold up under scrutiny while Portugal’s once-feared decriminalisation has produced nothing but good results.

It is important to note though that such an audit should be a neutral comparison of approaches ranging from legal regulation to even stronger prohibition (and that one size does not fit all drugs). There are many MPs and Lords who have a very orthodox view of drugs policy and yet want to see evidence of effectiveness, of value-for-money.

The consultation for the Government’s recently announced drugs strategy was criticised my MPs and charities alike for its lack of breadth and time. When it arrived the strategy was similarly unambitious and though it did come with the required impact assessment, this was little more than an exercise in box-ticking. When comparing their proposals to an alternative, what did they choose? “Do nothing”.

2. This is an ideal time
If that weren’t enough, 2011 will see the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act as well as the big 5-0 for the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which continues to dominate drugs policy across the world and is a large obstacle to reform. But the times they are a-changin’. Several US states may well legalise cannabis in 2012 while Latin America is justifiably unhappy with the status quo.

The UK is faced with large cuts to law enforcement and the judiciary while it is estimated that regulation would save billions. Given that this is being proposed by a Labour MP, and would be commissioned by the Coalition, a reasonably independent review may be possible and without any one side being blamed for daring to question prohibition.

Such fear of Daily Mail rebuke may be misplaced, in any case. A poll commissioned by LDDPR showed, for example, 70% – from across the spectrum – in favour of either strict or light regulation of cannabis as opposed to prohibition. Ainsworth is just the latest figure to criticise the current system, from Professor Nutt to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; the latter calling for decriminalisation and the consideration of regulatory models.

3. The Liberal Democrats could leave at least some legacy on drugs policy
The Lib Dems have by far the best set of drugs policies. But what will our first term in Government leave behind? The scrapping of the need to have at least a few scientists on the ACMD? The anti-harm-reduction side of the Tory party barely held back? The prohibition of currently legal drugs such as khat or salvia?

This is a fine opportunity to retain a distinct Liberal Democrat voice, having first called for a broad review in 1994, and again in 2002. Does the party hold so little power in this Government that it can’t now achieve this?

4. It allows a rethink for all sides
While it’s difficult for politicians to come out against what they’ve been doing for decades, such a report allows a shift of direction between elections and the public should be able to respect this, particularly if their minds have been changed too. It is an excellent way of encouraging all parties into policies actually backed by evidence.

That includes the Lib Dems. Our current policy suggests that regulation might be a good idea but that (for drugs other cannabis) such a review is needed first. But on the other hand, if there is evidence that prohibition – perhaps even better resourced than at the moment – is the utilitarian option, I’d be willing to change my mind and I’m sure the party would too.

A broad assessment would presumably not be finished before Labour’s full policy review but I hope that they too will give this question the time it deserves.

Ministers (while in office, at least) will say in response to Ainsworth that they “don’t believe” that decriminalisation or regulation are appropriate, but do they have an answer as to why the evidence shouldn’t be looked at?

Originally published at http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-why-we-need-an-impact-assessment-of-drugs-policy-22419.html

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