I used to believe that if you got a bunch of intelligent people together around a table and presented them with all the evidence available on a subject, they would come up with some reasonably good answers. Today proved that there is at least one exception – the Law Commission.
In 2007 it was asked by the Associate Minister of Health to review the Misuse of Drugs Act. The terms of reference included a number of specific questions, but top of the list were whether legislation should be guided by harm minimisation, and the most suitable model (or models) for the control of drugs. It was, in effect, a first principles review of drug policy and coincided with the UN's review of the international conventions around psychoactive drugs.
The report has been delayed a few times, but lets not quibble about that. A thorough report that looks at all the options, evaluates them according to the evidence and then makes some recommendations based on that evaluation, can be expected to take time. The summary report that the commission delivered yesterday, however, makes me wonder what they spent their time doing because it is the most near reaching and narrow focussed 'first principles' review I have seen. It assumes the status quo – prohibition – without apparent question and focusses instead on tweaking its machinery.
All this reinforces the impression left by the 2007 report into search and surveillance powers that the commission should only be used for examining 'lawyers law', the important but obscure technical stuff that needs a dusting from time to time. The stuff that is so dry that no one has any interest in it beyond making the law work better. Drug policy, police powers of surveillance and seizure, these kinds of issues are at the sharp end of the relationship between the state and citizens. They have enormous social ramifications. When faced with these kinds of pressures, the commissioners (none of whom has ever faced the sharp edge of the law to the best of my knowledge) seem to become incapable of providing the kind of fearless independent advice the situation demands. In both cases they begin with fine words of principle, but then leave them at the door.
In case this sounds like sour grapes because their recommendations don't go as far as I'd like, lets be clear. I never expected the commission to say the things I would have said. What I did expect was an examination and evaluation of the options. By a priori ruling out a consideration of the best alternative to prohibition, the commission has poven itself to be gutless. There is plenty of theoretical and practical evidence to suggest that implementing a system of licensing and taxing the producers and sellers of relatively benign recreational drugs such as cannabis, BZP, MDMA and LSD would be the most effective way to reduce drug use (especially hard drug use) and to reduce the harms associated with drug use. The commission may not have be swayed by that evidence if they had examined it but the report suggests they barely even looked.
Unsurprisingly I've been told that the government has already said that it won't even look at the moderate recommendations that the commission has actually made – a less punitive approach to personal cannabis use and allowing its supervised medicinal use. If the commission thought that it would get some traction by being mealy mouthed when it comes to our rights (such as the right to determine what you put into your own body) they were mistaken. They might as well have shown some courage and made a decent job of it after all.