War On Drugs Takes A New Spin

War On Drugs Takes A New Spin
Posted by CN Staff on May 28, 2002 at 21:39:11 PT
By Iain MacWhirter
Source: Sunday Herald UK
Who said spin was dead? The government's handling of last week's armistice in the war on drugs was a minor masterpiece of media management. Even Peter Mandelson would be proud. First, the spin-doctors leaked significant parts of the Home Affairs Select Committee report -- on downgrading cannabis and prescribing heroin -- to a Sunday newspaper the weekend before publication, thus removing the element of surprise. 
The day before the report emerged the government launched a 'tough on drugs' initiative which included showing schoolchildren a lurid anti-drug film featuring the corpse of an addict. Finally, on the eve of publication last Wednesday 'sources' let it be known that the government would not accept the committee's recommendation to re-classify ecstasy. Come the day, and some papers were suggesting the government had rejected the report in its entirety. Of course, it had done nothing of the kind. The Home Secretary David Blunkett had already made clear his wish to re-classify cannabis and abandon the punitive approach to heroin addiction. It was classic under-spin. By Thursday, the press had largely lost interest in the story. Thus did the government get away with the most radical change in drugs policy since the 1971 Dangerous Drugs Act with scarcely a murmur of protest -- apart from the pages of the Daily Mail, which went through the motions of outrage. This muted, indeed largely supportive response was quite astonishing to anyone with a memory longer than three months. Make no mistake: if the new drug policy (on which the Scottish parliament has no legislative say) is implemented as it has been piloted in Lambeth, then people could be openly smoking marijuana in Scottish cities by next summer. The police in England are 100% behind the new moves, having piloted 'tolerance' schemes in inner London boroughs successfully for the last year. But are they ready for this in Easterhouse and Springburn? Most Labour politicians from the west of Scotland still hold to the 'no surrender' policy on drugs. It's going to come as a shock when some yob lights up in front of one of them. Five years ago, all this would have been unthinkable. Indeed, Labour frontbenchers -- such as Clare Short and Mo Mowlam -- risked the sack just for suggesting a debate about cannabis. Less than a year ago at the general election, Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist MSP, was rounded on by Labour and its tabloid supporters for being 'dangerously irresponsible' in calling for the leglisalisation of cannabis. Tony Blair has said repeatedly since he became Labour leader that there would be no let up the war on drugs and that softening the laws on cannabis would send out the wrong message on the housing estates. Not any more, it seems. This was also the First Minister Jack McConnell's response when interviewed on the subject after he became Scottish Labour leader. The silence this week from the Scottish Executive has been deafening. One wonders if the politicians fully appreciate even now just how radically drug policy is likely to change. The government isn't going to legalise cannabis, but by saying he will downgrade it from a class B to class C drug Blunkett has effectively decriminalised possession for personal use. The guidance being given to police in England and Wales is that mere possession will no longer be an arrestable offence. Call it what you will, but that is not exactly zero tolerance. The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham says we should just go the whole way and legalise cannabis. Until recently, any politician proposing that GPs should prescribe heroin on the NHS to junkies in state shooting galleries would have been regarded as a lunatic. But last week, the press comment was largely favourable even to that. The government had been bracing itself for a media firestorm, and had been prepared to rule out shooting galleries. But even on this the media response was more bewilderment than outrage. These galleries, which should really be called 'treatment centres', are essential to the policy. If addicts are to be given heroin, they need to be supervised while they administer it. Not only so they can be encouraged to go straight and use clean needles, but also to prevent 'leakage' of prescription heroin on to the black market. Methadone is already administered from designated pharmacies, but nobody calls them 'drug bars'.This is a bold policy and the government should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions, even if it is still hiding them behind a web of spin. But it is not going to be easy. The old war on drugs at least had the merit of clarity. Everyone knew where they stood. Now the law is becoming vague and impressionistic. We have criminal statutes which will not, as a matter of policy, be enforced to the letter. What will be the impact on the streets? If heroin is being supplied to addicts by doctors, will it still be possible to arrest people for possession of it? What if some addicts don't want to get off heroin and decide to make a career of their habit at public expense? Will it look as if hard drug consumption is being condoned, if not encouraged, by the state? It is unfortunate these issues have not been given much of an airing. They will be. There needs to be an informed public debate for this initiative to be effective. The news paper editorials have been largely supportive because the police are very much signed up to the new deal on drugs. They have had to deal with the consequences of the decades of denial by successive governments about the true scale of the drugs problem. Many of the most hardened criminals are junkies who will do anything for a fix. The police resent having to enforce laws on soft drugs that are flouted by millions of people every weekend. But the police may not be the best people to advise on the roll-out of this policy, and neither are the politicians. One suspects the government will now, after heaving a sigh of relief, quietly hand the issue over to doctors for them to sort out. But that's expecting a lot of a hard-pressed medical profession. The danger is that, once people realise what is going on, there could be a public backlash. Imagine if someone's underage teenage daughter dies after getting a fix from the local GP? What if prescription heroin turns up in a school? What if a community refuses to accept a shooting gallery in their area? The most likely outcome of this new policy is that drug taking, over all, will continue to rise as the penalties are lessened. Is the government prepared for the flak? Tony Blair is taking a huge risk, since he will be blamed if things go wrong. But such is the measure of true leadership. The government has sensed there is a very different attitude to private morality now to that which existed 30 years ago. The baby boom generation, which experimented with drugs, now occupies the commanding heights of government and business. An entire chemical generation has grown up with drugs in the club culture of the 1990s. We are in the midst of one of those remarkable sea-changes in moral behaviour, the equivalent of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. And I think I can identify the moment when the war on drugs was lost. It was three years ago, when the then Tory home affairs spokesperson, Ann Widdecombe, called for zero tolerance of cannabis. Seven of her Tory shadow cabinet colleagues lined up, shame-faced, to ask that their indiscretions with dope be taken into consideration. The law had become an ass. When even Tories had taken to toking, it was time to wake up and smell the cannabis. Note: Iain MacWhirter says a real debate is needed if tolerance tactics are to work as politicians wake up and smell the cannabis. Source: Sunday Herald, The (UK)Author: Iain MacWhirterPublished: Sunday, May 26, 2002Copyright: 2002 Sunday HeraldContact: editor sundayherald.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Drugs Uncovered: Observer Special Judge Calls For Legalisation Of Cannabis Signal New Era in Drugs War Scotland's First Cannabis Cafe Set to Open
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment