Interview with Leo Barasi, Communication manager of the United Kingdom DrugP olicy Commission (UKDPC)
Matteo Angioli: What do you think of the drug policy that the Lib-dems have put forward?
Leo Barasi: I think it’s worth saying first that the Lib-dems are the junior coalition partner within the government so as they say in their conference they’re trying to have some influence in the government but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that their proposal will become government policy.
In terms of theirs proposals, I think that it’s really eye-catching and significant. The first is about the proposal to decriminalise personal possession of certain currently illegal substances. To the UKDPC this sounds potentially a quite interesting introductive step. At the moment relatively few people who are caught with controlled substances are sent to prison. Most of them are still given criminal record in their process through the criminal justice system. What the Lib-dems are proposing is to consider the adoption of a system more like Portugal’s where people caught in possession with any illicit substances are still committing an offence but it wouldn’t be a criminal offence and it would be dealt with through the treatment system.
To us it also sounds like a productive step. The evidence internationally suggest that it’s unlikely that there would be any significant increase in the number of people using controlled substances. Certainly there hasn’t been in Portugal and the evidence seems to be that the legal status of substances doesn’t have much effect on whether or not people are using them. It certainly increases the opportunities to process people through the treatment system.
Along with the change in legal status there would really need to be a concerted effort to make sure that the treatment system is able to cope with large numbers of people being taken into it. As a country we’re getting better at recognising problems of addiction and how people can recover from them.
There’s another option which is regulation of the cannabis market which is essentially going one step further in saying that cannabis should be made available for legal sale in a manner similar but that is not necessarily the same to how alcohol and tobacco are made available to sale. The proposal in the motion would say that they want tighter restrictions, but it is probably worth saying that we are concerned that if you open it up too far, you risk to have a commercialised market and we know how great the health societal harm that may cause. We have hugely great numbers of deaths from many licit substances. Also the international conventions that Britain and of course Italy are subject to are such that it would be very difficult, illegal, to open up the control regulations of cannabis as far as this motion suggests.
MA: Does your commission advocate the legalisation of hard drugs?
LB: I think it’s important we draw a distinction between legalisation and decriminalisation. It sounds a fairly pedantic point but what the motion is suggesting and what the motion is putting forward is the suggestion of decriminalisation in the case of possession. That means firstly that the supply of the substances would continue to have legal controls over it and secondly that people who are found to be in personal possession of illegal substances would be still assisted to go into treatment as much as it has been done in Portugal.
Legalisation acts separately from that. It’s a step further where the substances are made very freely available and as I said there is a problem with international conventions. They simply wouldn’t be allowed under the current international conventions, although in principle they can be renegotiated. Secondly, there is really no evidence of what the impact of that would be. No-one has tried it. The UKDPC’s purpose is to show what the evidence is on drug policy. So this is a step beyond what we are comfortable with. I think the very different case of alcohol and tobacco certainly suggests that having a fully legal market might open up all kinds of health harms and societal harms that cause a huge amount of damage and kill large numbers of people.
MA: Is the struggle for decriminalisation of cannabis gaining momentum at the parliamentary level, or are MPs like Peter Lilley and Paul Flynn, not to mention the Lib-dems, still an exception?
LB: There’s been in the recent years in the UK an increasing health focus on how we treat people with drug problems. We’ve begun to move away from a system where it’s controlled by our Ministry of Interior and is seen purely as a criminal issue. It still is controlled by the Ministry of the Interior (the Home Office), but there is increasing recognition of the health concerns. This thing is very welcome news that has moved the UK more in line with the rest of Europe. In fact there have also been some legal changes in the status of cannabis, although it was technically made less strict and then stricter again.
What’s also happened is the way the police have dealt with it. It certainly has had less strong enforcement and many people who are caught with cannabis are given a police notice that actually has no real legal status.
I think there is still in Parliament a lot of resistance to changes in the law. There was a case of a former labour drug’s minister, Bob Ainsworth. After the change of government last year, when he was no longer minister, he said he thought the system of control of drugs with police enforcement was wrong and that it should be greatly softened. It was interesting and surprising. He was very clear that he only felt able to say this when he was no longer in a position of power and no longer seeking a position of power. Not surprising, it’s very difficult for any politician who is seeking more power to say that the system of drug control should be weakened.
Nonetheless I believe that the fact that the Lib-dems have put through this motion does remind us that there are lots of influential politicians who know the figures and who do feel that the system would benefit from reform.
MA: Ainsworth said that he was willing to help by speaking up even from a non-ministerial position.
LB: That’s right, as soon as he made this announcement various media criticised him. But he had certainly received lot of support from other people who were glad to hear what he had said.
MA: What do you think of the sacking of professor David Nutt by former Prime Minister Brown? Do you have any form of collaboration with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)?
LB: I think the sacking of professor Nutt really just reminds us that we have to think of how we make drug policy. The ACMD has been around for many years in the UK, since the Misuse of Drugs Act was established in the early 1970s, but of course at the same time the environment of drugs in the UK has changed greatly. We have moved from a situation where new drugs were discovered every few years to one where a new drug is discovered almost every week. We haven’t adapted our structures to take account of that and there is still great amount of pressure on the advisory council to respond very quickly in a way that is often very difficult for them to gather the full amount of evidence before they act.
Actually the UKDPC is just beginning a new project that’s going to be a large-scale project looking at the governance of how we make drug policy and how we take into account public opinion, scientific evidence and the competing pressures of political parties to try and make a more effective drug policy.
In terms of the advisory council, their work is very much focused on the legal aspect of how different substances should be controlled and we have looked at that on occasions and we have worked with the ACMD and made sure that we’re aware of what they are doing and they are aware of what we’re doing. We have also much broader areas of interests. We’re covering the criminal justice system that often goes beyond the council’s work and in fact it’s worth mentioning that professor Nutt has a new organisation, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs which also has a lot of overlap with the advisory council and indeed our work. We also collaborate with them.
MA: Is the UKDPC going to observe the conference in Birmingham?
LB: We’re a non-political organisation; we’re not affiliated with any political party. In that sense we won’t be voting or addressing the conference, but certainly we’ll be there and we’re interested in the motion in seeing how the debate goes.
MA: Did you expect the recent publication of the report by the Global Commission of Drugs, which calls on the end of the war on drug? How do you judge it?
LB: The first thing to say about the report is that there were lots of interesting, sensible and welcome points. Drug policy seems to have people producing new reports on different areas. So it’s not unusual for a commission to produce a report that is thought out and quite sensible. It is certainly impressive to have got such a high-level of participants as the GC has got. In the UK, as I’m sure in Italy, it is still often being referred to and I think it is very welcome to have a fresh look at the drugs debate.
That said, as we often see it in drug policy, I think it is not going to produce very quick or significant change in policy, but is nonetheless useful to have more people making a contribution.
MA: You probably know that in Italy we have a rather strict drug policy, which is advocated especially by Minister Giovanardi. In order to reform the system, the Radical Party members tend to recall the situation of Mexico where people are being killed on a daily basis because of the war between drug cartels. Do you think that this report will lead to a new approach to handle drug policy at the UN level?
LB: It is impossible not to look at Mexico without being horrified by the news coming out. We see terrible news reports of young people being killed in terrible circumstances. Anything that makes progress in that situation would have to be very welcome and it’s clear that lots of the aspects of drug policy need to be addressed at the international level. Clearly drug trade has both the supply and demand aspect to it. Britain, like Italy and other countries, is signatory to international conventions that would need to be reconsidered with any attempt to reform of the system.
MA: In 2003 the Radical Party supported actively the case of Mr Davis who was found guilty by a British court for having established a coffee shop near Manchester. Former MEPs Pannella and Cappato supported this man and his initiative. Would the UKDPC be ready to take any supportive position in favour of politicians advocating drugs legalisation?
LB: It’s always very welcome when someone is prepared to take an interest and action in drug policy. One of the really tough things about drug policy reform is how polarised the debate is. One of the real problems we have in the UK is how quickly the people who take any kind of position seem to be labelled as the “soft on drugs” or “tough on drugs”. Once you’ve established that position it can become incredibly difficult to move beyond it and to speak to anyone who doesn’t buy your position.
As a commission what we’ve always tried to do is to move beyond the debate that we had for the last 40 years in the UK of “tough on drugs” vs. “soft on drugs” and try to look at what the evidence suggests of what works.
One of the reports that we’ve recently published tries to think of about how you can build a new system of control particularly focusing on new drugs that have developed and how you can do that in a way that doesn’t immediately polarise and bring people into thinking exclusively in tough or soft on drugs.
In terms of international outlook, up until very recently, we’ve focused our work on the UK but, as I mentioned, we’re just about to start a new project, which is going to take in international comparisons. So we are going to very much welcome the opportunity to work together with international groups that have experience with drug policies in other countries.
MA: So after having introduced the concept of evidence-based policy, now it’s time to introduce evidence-based government.
LB: That’s right, there are lots of facts that public opinion, the media and indeed how far the government can even be aware of evidence are all factors that influence how far evidence is really used by governments.