Home Office clings to the raft as international drug consensus crumbles

Last October, there was a press conference which marked the most explosive change in international drug regulations for half a century. William Brownfield, head of the US' Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, sat down with reporters and told them the 1961 UN convention on drugs – the legal framework for their global criminality – actually allowed for the legalisation of "entire categories" of narcotics.

It was revolutionary. The UN convention had for years been used to beat any state around the head if it considered a liberal approach to drugs. Now, it was suddenly more a series of policy suggestions.

Had the US suddenly had a change of heart? No, but some of its states had. Washington and Colorado were experimenting with legal cannabis. The drug was being freely sold in the heart of government in a country which had nominated itself the world's policeman. Residents of Oregon and Alaska recently voted to join them. Uruguay was doing the same. Countries like Mexico and Guatemala were demanding an end to the drug war altogether. Suddenly the UN convention was looking like it might fall apart.

So the US did what smart rulers always do when it looks like their opponents have reached critical mass: they bended. The UN convention was much more flexible than it first appeared, Brownfield claimed. He went on:

"How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalisation of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?

"We are all required to abide by the conventions that we ourselves have ratified. But the conventions are not rigid. The conventions were written more than 50 years ago. We are allowed to interpret them so long as our interpretation is still consistent with our universal desire to reduce the misuse and abuse of harmful products throughout the world."

This intervention, now known as the Brownfield Doctrine, instantly raised questions all over the world. If the world's drug policeman was suddenly taking a new approach, what did that mean for the countries which always followed its lead?

Brownfield speaks during a press conference with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in 2012

Good luck asking those questions to the Home Office. Their answers are so opaque as to defy meaning. A parliamentary question recently asked the department what the "implications for UK policy" were of the Brownfield doctrine and whether the "government plans to support the policy position expressed in those comments".

This is the Home Office response, from Lynne Featherstone:

"The coalition government promotes a balanced and evidence-based approach to drug policy within the UN drug control conventions. As Ambassador Brownfield made clear, it is important that the international community respects the integrity of UN conventions in this area. We will continue to champion our balanced drug strategy, which since 2010 has focused on reducing demand, restricting supply, and building recovery. This includes at international forums, including the forthcoming UN general assembly special session on drugs in 2016."

As banal and jargon-filled as it is, it is at least superior to the answer Theresa May gave when she was in front of a Commons committee. The video of the debate (from 1:28:20 onwards) shows Lib Dem committee member Julian Huppert ask the home secretary about the statement. It's an extremely irritating video, not least because the home secretary, committee chair and other members seem to view Huppert's rather important question as a dotty eccentricity.

May's response is to answer a completely separate question. Quite possibly she doesn’t know what Huppert is talking about. It's also possible that she knows precisely what he is talking about and is basically stalling for time by banging on about her views on drugs, which are quite beside the point. But there is something telling in her response, because she repeatedly accepts it's up to individual countries to decide their drug laws.

She may think that's plainly true. It certainly should be. But it is not. Whichever country you're reading this in, your drug laws almost certainly come from the UN convention. It is the legal mechanism the US (and now increasingly Russia) hide behind while they use the war on drugs to plant themselves in regions in which they have no business. The drug war was the new imperialism and the UN convention was its founding document. May is either unaware of its significance, or extremely accomplished at appearing simple-minded.

A drug siezure photographed by the Met police. Tories and Labour refuse to discuss a new approach to drugs.

The American government is now trying to pretend the convention is flexible enough to include these liberal experiments sweeping the world and its own territories. It is intent on protecting the integrity of the convention even as its details change. The British government is clearly unable to support the US stance of actually saying that countries are free to legalise drugs, but is also unwilling to publicly oppose the US. Both countries, in their own way, are tied in the straightjacket of drug prohibition as the world changes around them. The US' position is at least more realistic and responsible.

Or is it? One of the problems with the new doctrine is that it creates an entirely relative political response to the various contraventions of the convention. While Washington state is plainly allowed to experiment however it likes, Bolivia is penalised by the US for allowing the traditional use of the coca leaf among indigenous communities. This isn’t even an actual breach. Bolivia has a reservation. But it still gets penalised while the US cites flexibility on its own states' decisions.

But overall the new interpretation is a satisfying development. Fifty years of global drug policy does not fall apart overnight. The frantic attempt to pretend the convention survives in any meaningful form is like Basil Fawlty dressing Polly up like Sybil and leaving her in the dark for her friends to greet from afar. It’s funny, but eventually people will figure out what's happened.

Whatever its negative effects, this is an example of the politics trying to catch up with where the world is, rather than imposing its will on it. And the world is in a more sensible place than the policy is.

From a UK perspective, we are unlikely to see any change under the Conservatives or Labour. But it is not unthinkable that drug policy could be an area of concession in a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats or the Greens – particularly when the US has shown itself willing to countenance that thought itself.

The Home Office's opaque response to the Brownfield doctrine may be frustrating, but it is ultimately a sign of weakness.