Interview: Brian Iddon

Like most all-party group chairs, Brian Iddon is always keen to get his subject debated. Which is why he gave notice to the leader of the House, five weeks ago, that something very important in the drugs world was about to happen.

“In March, there will be a United Nation General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna,” he said in the Commons on February 5th.

“That follows a similar Ungass in Vienna last year, at which it was decided to consider reforming the three UN conventions that control the world’s drug policy as well as the 1998 UN declaration on countering the world drug problem.”

Harriet Harman replied: “My hon friend is right to say that this matter is extremely important.” But she didn’t allow any parliamentary time to debate the issue.

One month later, and the two-day summit is now getting underway. It’s a big moment for Dr Iddon, who is chair of the all-party group on drugs misuse. He even took time off from the coroners and justice bill standing committee to talk to me about it.

“I think everybody interested in the subject felt they had to be looked at,” he began in a deserted Commons committee corridor.

“They’ve clearly not worked in terms of the number of drugs being trafficked and sold. The amount in the world has increased.”

Dr Iddon was of course referring to the previous UN conventions, made in 1971, 1981 and 1989, which established the ‘war on drugs’ approach to the issue.

Now they are up for review he believes a similar shift is justified in Britain, whose drugs policy has been closely based on the findings of the 1971 convention. The “hang ’em, whip ’em” approach, he explained, needs to be updated.

“The government’s spent enormous amounts of money on the drug problem,” he said loyally. “The quantity of treatment is there, there’s just a question-mark over the quality of it.”

While drug-related crime has decreased substantially Dr Iddon said the emphasis should now be on harm reduction – focusing on health and deterrence through education rather than punishment.

Will the government change approach as the UN does in Vienna this week? “They’re not basing their drugs approach on evidence,” he responded – a familiar refrain for critics across Whitehall.

Perhaps domestic political concerns will help Gordon Brown move away from the Tories, whose position Dr Iddon characterises as believing in “abstincence”.

“There is clear blue water between Labour and the Conservative party policies in this area,” he stated. For a Labour backbencher keen to see his government do more, that’s always going to be something of a comfort.

Brian Iddon was talking to Alex Stevenson