Why Does the UK Conservative Party Continue to Stand by Failing Drug Laws?

October 30 was already set to be an interesting day for UK drug policy thanks to the "once in a generation" drug policy debate that took place in parliament. But it got significantly more interesting in the early hours of the morning when the Home Office released Drugs: international comparators, a report that the Conservatives suppressed for months which asserts that tougher drug laws do not have an impact on rates of drug use.

What followed was really quite a remarkable debate in the Commons. MPs from all sides of the floor joined together in a scene that became almost worryingly convivial, with an unusual but very much welcome agreement on the failures of the UK's current drug policy, and the desperate need for a review, probably in the form of a long-awaited royal commission on drugs.

A quick summary: punishment doesn’t work, Britain's drug laws are broken, and everyone knows it.

Obviously this means that everything is going to change. How could everything stay the same in the face of overwhelming evidence and early indications of a political consensus that the status quo is an abject failure? Well, strangely, when asked about the groundbreaking report, a Home Office spokesperson suggested that "our drugs strategy is working," something which David Cameron echoed.

You'd be right to think that this is an odd response. It deserves an explanation, so here’s a seasonal analogy to help, in which UK drug policy makes an appearance as a bad shopping-centre-Santa (last night I spotted Christmas-themed mayonnaise in the supermarket, which is as good a sign as any that Christmas has basically begun):  

As one Christmas approaches, a little boy (we'll call him Dave) starts going to a local shopping centre a lot. He’s intrigued by the (very unconvincing) shop Santa, to whom he has formed a seemingly inexplicable attachment. Annoyingly for little Dave, for a quite a significant period of time, experts have been providing solid evidence that this isn’t really Santa, and that we know this because with only the most rudimentary of visual inspections, it is clear that his beard is woven almost entirely from illusion, sophistry and nonsensical anecdote.

Not convinced with the expert consensus, little Dave and his admin team decided to start an investigation. He decided to pull at Santa’s beard and if it came off, he would know that this was not Santa, and then moves could be made towards finding out what it is that makes a good Santa, good.

On the fateful day -- which also happened to be the day where all the shop elves had planned to meet to discuss whether shop-Santa was worth keeping or not -- Dave pulled at the beard, and off it came! But then something strange happened. While everyone else stood back and absorbed the undeniable evidence staring them in the face, the little boy came out almost immediately and said that nothing had changed and that he still had full faith in the idea that shop-Santa was, in fact, the real Santa. To everyone’s astonishment, the public unveiling had apparently done nothing to dampen his confidence.

What on earth happened? Was the boy blind? Well, the shocking truth is this: the little boy had known for years that this wasn’t the real Santa. In fact, he knew for nearly a decade that this wasn’t even a half decent fake. So why -- after pulling “Santa’s” beard right off his face, and revealing once and for all that even by his very own set of criteria, this Santa was an imposter -- did the little boy continue to profess his undying faith in him?

Because when you’re a child, and you want to impress a slightly more powerful child (who happens to have been mostly responsible for weaving the beard of lies), it’s not what you actually think that matters, it’s what you pretend to think. Or, to put it another way -- and to remove ourselves from the silly analogy -- when it comes to passing comment on something which is perceived as being politically sensitive: do whatever it takes to avoid bad headlines!

David Cameron has shamefully, but predictably, responded to the report with the same banal, vacuous and false line that come out of the Tory party whenever someone points out the demonstrable inefficacy of UK drugs law. Given what we know, and how many people are saying it, and how long they have been saying it for, does that sound like a response made in full candor after a rational and reasonable appraisal of the available evidence? Or, does it sound more like the response of a little boy, scared of letting down another little boy, sheepishly pretending to believe that the beardless man in the silly red hat who’s standing in the corner really is Santa?

Believing in something against a tide of disagreement and fighting for that cause is perhaps one of the great hallmarks of the democratic process, but pretending to believe something which is demonstrably false in a cynical attempt to avoid upsetting potential voters is the ultimate hallmark of political cowardice. Can we really be surprised at the level of disillusionment that surrounds politics in Britain today when our PM leads with this embarrassing example?

Rather than continuously trying to calculate how the actively ignorant, pro-fear, anti-evidence elements of the right wing media will react to evidence, reality and truth, it would be nice if we could just all be on the same page for once, or reading the same report, or engaging in the same debate, or even just admitting that evidence is important and should play a part in forming public policy. Without that very early starting point of rational consensus, we are doomed to a lack of real policy evaluation. 

But do not fear, festive readers, there is some jolly news. October 30 marked a quite wonderful moment in the evolution of UK drug policy. The debate that was held was really quite encouraging. It seems that the tide has genuinely turned. A sizeable number of courageous MPs are now more than willing to stand up and be counted as standard bearers for evidence-based policy, and the rational appraisal of relevant studies. Well done especially to Caroline Lucas, Julian Huppert and Norman Baker, for having the courage to do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said at this landmark moment. 

"The genie", as Baker suggested towards the end of the debate, "is out of the bottle ... and it’s not going back in." Now we just need to decide what wishes we want granted: a royal commission on drug policy wouldn't be a bad place to start.


William Montgomery is a policy researcher at The Beckley Foundation. You can follow him here: @Monthrie.