Prof David Nutt on drugs policy: ‘David Cameron has betrayed promise of fresh thinking’

Professor David Nutt

Professor David Nutt - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Prof David Nutt is chairman of Drug Science, the independent scientific committee on drugs, and is a former chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

UK drugs policy is dysfunctional. The reason? Its creators in parliament have for decades wrestled with two conflicting ambitions. Like a determination to combine the functions of hairdryer and power drill into one, the attempt is dangerous and success unlikely. The functions of drugs policy are as follows.

Function A: Successful policy must demonstrably drive down the suffering and costs drugs can cause individuals and society. In short, policy must function practically to produce desirable outcomes for all. Function B: Successful policy must communicate and demonstrate the government or party’s values and agenda. In short, the policy must function symbolically to produce desirable perceptions about the policymakers.

Norman Baker just resigned as drugs minister, and I was sacked in 2009 because Conservative and Labour leaders were not prepared for any compromise on Function B. The need to be seen to be tough on drugs, and their users, (well, specific drugs and drug users) has so far trumped the requirement that policy produces positive change.

In 2005, an ambitious MP named David Cameron called for “fresh thinking and a new approach”, in exploring all available options for supporting and treating rather than punishing people with addictions. He said: “Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown.” These were the words of a firm believer in the first function of drugs policy; to reduce harm, not exacerbate it. Then he became Tory leader, and the second function of drug policy, “posturing” in his words, took precedence.

The government’s new study comparing policy approaches internationally shows evidence for the success and cost-effectiveness of some of the very policies Cameron spoke of approvingly in 2005, such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms and heroin on prescription where the context is right. Yet in response Cameron said “I’m a parent with three children; I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe”.

The ‘responsible dad card’ with the “sending out a message” cliché are classic Function B signals, tactics in the battle to be the Party of Law and Order and Family Values.

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Whilst Cameron’s kids are unlikely to suffer from the fallout of the failing enforcement-led approach, this may not be the case for black parents in Camden. I hope things have improved, but 2009/10 data shows black people use no more drugs than white people but got stop-and-searched between four and five times more often, with at least 19 in 20 of such searches failing to find anything justifying arrest. Black people in Camden were 10 times more likely to be charged for a cannabis offence than white people. Young people thrive best in environments where the harms of drugs and of criminalisation are minimised, not where politicians talk toughest.

Frustratingly, the tough rhetoric is unrepresentative of the reality of frontline delivery of drug policies in Camden and elsewhere. Locking up people for simple drug possession is not a major pillar of the government’s drugs strategy, yet it is the language of enforcement with which they choose to represent their approach.

Much of the UK’s drugs strategy is humane, focussed on treatment and support, and validated by evidence. Some of the successful methods that are helping Camden’s residents, drug users and non-users alike, (like the provision of heroin substitutes such as methadone and free sterile needles to prevent disease transmission) are exactly the policies that would have made politicians of yesteryear reach for Cameron’s words, “I’m a parent with three children; I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe”.

Caroline Lucas MP armed with 135,000 signatures, forced a Commons debate calling for a cost-benefit analysis of current drugs policy. She and Norman Baker MP both represent parties and constituents who do not see Function A and Function B as in conflict.

The Lib Dems and Greens, and indeed many backbenchers from all parties, are committed to pursue drug policy that through open-minded, reasoned and continuous appraisal of the evidence, demonstrably reduces the burden of drug harms. We must insist on the same from all politicians.