The Week

UK Drugs Policy Commission responds to Melanie Phillips

27 May 2008

Melanie Phillips makes three allegations about the UK Drug Policy Commission in her 22 May Spectator Blog, “Britain’s Drug Wars”.

First is that we are a “bunch of self appointed busybodies of no status or authority whatsoever”. As a charity we may be self-appointed but a quick look at our web-site would have shown that our Commissioners are people of significant stature and reputation in their respective fields.

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Second is that we are “intent on bringing about the legalisation of drugs”. This is an absolute travesty and a wilful misrepresentation of our work which is aimed at supporting a more informed public and political debate about addressing issues of drug policy and practice in the UK through the use of sound evidence. An examination of our recently published evidence review “Reducing Drug Use & Reducing Reoffending” would have shown any rookie journalist that the Commission could in no way be accused of being closet “legalisers”. Its first conclusion was that the principle of using criminal justice system-based interventions to encourage engagement with treatment is supported by the international and much domestic evidence.

Finally she asks why the UKDPC research is “not being opened up to public scrutiny like other research?”. There is no secret or conspiracy in the work we are doing-it is all publicly accessible through our web site (including our submission to the ACMD about cannabis reclassification). We are currently working on four major pieces of work: shortly we will be publishing a review of the international evidence for the effectiveness of efforts to tackle drug markets and distribution networks in the UK. This has led on to new work to consider how the benefits of enforcement activity can be optimised to reduce drug related harms. Other work is looking at building a consensus amongst those engaged with drug treatment about the central importance of recovery. We also have two other areas of activity, one looking at getting problem drug users (back) into employment with a special focus on employers needs, and another examining the support provided by families of addicts during recovery and their own support needs.

The revolution we seek is not the legalisation of drugs. Rather it is the objective that politicians, the media and the public will increasingly use science and the evidence base to have a more informed dialogue about drug policy.  Our contribution to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs meeting was not a formal submission of evidence as suggested but an update on our work programme so the Council could take it into consideration  where relevant in the wide range of valuable work they undertake.

Dame Ruth Runciman
Chair UK Drug Policy Commission

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Show comments
  • David Raynes

    This explanation would be much more convincing if the hearings between the ACMD & UKDPC were in public, they have not been. It is disingenous to claim that everything is available on the UKDPC site. Given the record of both Ruth Runciman and Roger Howard in relation to drug policy, she chairing a group which reccommended downgrading cannabis with silly proposals for changes to the law on “social” dealing, he heading DrugScope when elements there were covertly helping organise the European Drug Legalisation movement & campaigning for changes in the UN Drug conventions, (specifically against the policy of the UK Government, DrugScope’s main paymaster) we are entitled to be suspicious. Let us have absolute transparency about who & what is influencing the ACMD. Let us have transparency about what is said. Let indeed ALL of the hearings of the ACMD be in public and all the evidence presented to them be made avilable on the web. When challenged about more openess by one questioner, the Chairman Sir Michael Rawlings gave a very unconvincing explanation of his policy. Frankly he made excuses which seemed made up on the spot and hardly hold water. UKDPC should have no special access or status. Parliamentary Select Committees mostly hold their proceedings in public, when pressure groups seek to influence them the public can find out & challenge. There is no doubt the association between some of the people who have sought to influence UK drug policy is too cosy. Arguably UK drug problems have got much worse as some of those seeking to influence policy have had their way. Private hearings between one drug policy pressure group & the ACMD are against the mood of the times and against the public interest.

  • Steve Rolles

    Unusually I find myself in agreement with some of what David Raynes says here. I agree that UKDPC’s privileged position regards access to the ACMD is anomalous given the fact that the same access is not granted to other similar organisations in the drugs field. I also can also see no good reason for any evidence to be presented to the ACMD in secret (although I do recall the sci-tech select committee not making some evidence public that had not been published – re the Nutt / Blakemore harm rankings paper, although that did later appear in the Lancet and it was made clear that it would).

    One good reason to take the positive steps the ACMD has made in the last year (regards openness) one step further(making its proceedings fully public) would be to stop the kind of daft conspiratorial nonsense that Melanie Phillips has produced from filling the void created by any continued secrecy.

    That said, in ten years in the field I have never heard or read any comments from Howard or Runciman to suggest they support moves towards legalisation/regulation of currently illegal drugs (indeed both have made public efforts to intellectually distance themselves from such a view).

    Neither does support for changes in penalties for cannabis possession / classification rankings, or discussion of a new social not-for-profit supply offence (as distinct from conventional profit seeking dealing/trafficking offences) suggest support for such a position.

    Transform Drug Policy Foundation – that openly advocates moves towards legal regulation of currently illegal drugs – would argue that attempts to reduce the harms created by prohibition – and the violent unregulated illegal markets it creates – by moderating some of the extremes of enforcement, are symptomatic responses that whilst delivering benefits, ignore the primary cause. Tweaking policy to reduce harms within a legal framework that maximises them can never be a long term solution, and closing down discussion of entire avenues of policy options (re: regulatory alternatives to prohibition) because they are politically taboo is cowardly and irrational. It can only lead to marginal and short term solutions. The work UKDPC does is first class, but they fight shy of asking certain key questions, and that is a great shame.

    Suggesting, as Raynes does, that promoting a debate on policy alternatives to the status quo has contributed to the drug problems we face today is ridiculous buck passing for the failures of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and the Governments that have overseen its enforcement.

    As a final comment; Given the long term systemic failings of our punitive prohibitionist drug policy, the suggestion that anyone who challenges it is morally reprehensible is offensive and intellectually absurd. Calls for pragmatic reform of our failed punitive drug policies (including legalisation/regulation) have come from many across the political spectrum, in academia, policy making, the clergy and the media, and are neither extremist nor marginalised. There is no conspiracy, just a positive, growing, welcome and long overdue debate about policy alternatives. Phillips attempts to demonise any who diverge from her ill-considered anti-science absolutist moral grandstanding will achieve nothing other than the perpetuation of a disastrously failing policy for a little longer.

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