Comment: Politicians don’t have the guts to support us in public

By Countess Amanda Feilding

Politicians will say many things privately but never dare utter them in public, especially when in office. Only when they are out of power do they reveal their true feelings.

And this is no truer than the when addressing the 'D' word – drugs.

Support the regulation of drugs and your career could be over. Or could it?

Not any more, as the weight of evidence overwhelmingly shows the 40-year-long war on drugs, famously declared by Richard Nixon, is well and truly lost.

Don't just take my word for it – the Beckley Foundation Public Letter declaring the war on drugs a failure is backed by nearly 70 of the world’s most influential figures. Signatories to the letter – include nine Presidents (such as Jimmy Carter and the current leaders of Colombia and Guatemala); twelve Nobel prize-winners; and international celebrities such as Sting, Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, Sean Parker and Sir Richard Branson.

The Beckley public letter is the mission statement of a new campaign, 'Breaking the Taboo'. The campaign website is being launched in association with Virgin Unite, Avaaz, Sundog Pictures and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. We aim to gather a million signatures for a petition calling on political leaders to reconsider prohibitionism, which will be presented to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon. The campaign also features the film 'Breaking the Taboo', which follows the Global Commission on a mission to expose the catastrophic failures of the war on drugs.

Just look at the facts – like a scene from King Canute, global annual spending on drug law enforcement exceeds $100 billion (£62 billion); the UK alone spends more than £300 million in this era of government cuts.

Yet drugs are now the world's third largest industry (behind food and oil); are cheaper and more available than ever before; and in the hands of criminal cartels.  The worldwide illegal drug market is an estimated $300–400 billion a year, and money laundering is rife.

There is also a terrible human toll – more than 50,000 people in Mexico alone have died in drug wars in the last six years.

And at home, no fewer than 596 Britons died last year from abuse of heroin, and 112 from cocaine.

What if governments took control, and all the wasted money – and profits – were diverted to education and treatment?

Over 15 years, the Beckley Foundation has supported governments and the UN to make evidence-based choices. Our case is based entirely on health, harm reduction, cost effectiveness, and human rights.

We have produced 40 much-cited books, reports and briefing papers (academic reports are key) and hosted nine highly influential seminars, mainly at the House of Lords.

A groundswell of MPs and Peers have agreed privately (and thankfully, at last, some have had the courage to speak up). There is clear proof now that we can't stop drugs: where there is demand there will always be supply. We need to take control from criminals and put it in the hands of governments.

But we need care.

We don't use the word 'legalisation' as it implies a free-for-all. We recognise drugs can be harmful, but that doesn't automatically mean they should be banned. After all, as a society, we accept tobacco and alcohol, yet UK deaths from tobacco in 2009 were around 102,000, and alcohol played a role in more than a million hospital admissions in England alone in 2009/10. User for user, these harms vastly outweigh those caused by many illicit drugs.

In fact, alcohol regulation in the UK shows how not to regulate. It is very freely available, all in the hands of profit-making companies, very cheap, and advertising backed.

Tobacco control is a much better model, with tighter rules, restrictions on public consumption, enforcement of rules against sale to children, curbs on the display of tobacco products in shops, and an advertising ban. However, the industry is still driven by profit – unlike, say, Spain's cannabis social clubs, co-operatives where cannabis is grown for personal use on a members-only, non-commercial basis.

Around 90% of drug users worldwide don't harm themselves or society, according to the UN. We should be channelling funds from drugs into helping – not abandoning – the remaining ten per cent.

Decriminalisation of drugs could apply to personal possession and use, but that doesn't mean that large-scale production, traffic and sale would be legal.

We think individual countries – if freed from UN mandates to impose prohibitionist policies – may wish to experiment with i) clear and explicit decriminalisation of drug possession in small quantities for personal use; or ii) strictly regulated legal markets.

Our new Beckley Foundation report, commissioned from professor Robin Room, one of the world's leading drug policy specialists, examines in detail how the UN drug conventions could be amended to give countries sovereignty to formulate their own policies – rather than being constrained by the current one-size-fits-all approach.

Also, different substances have different effects – some with high levels of harmfulness – and each must have its own regulation.

The overwhelming evidence shows that decriminalisation is not only logical, but effective. In pioneering countries – like Portugal and the Czech Republic, both of which have health-oriented, decriminalising policies – drug-related harms have actually declined as the glamour has disappeared, and profits have funded education and healthcare.

MPs and peers must get behind this by lobbying within their own parties, and escalating it to the UN. The 'Breaking the Taboo' petition, backed by a viral media campaign, will give politicians the courage to speak out by showing them that public opinion is behind them. That is why their voice is so important.

The test of the success of any policy must be effective policy, not the amount of intercept. Because, at the moment, we are failing society, and our children.

Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss, set up the Beckley Foundation in 1998 as a leading UK-based think tank working in the policy and science of psychoactive substances. The foundation has since been accredited as an NGO by the UN. Feilding established it to build an evidence base for rational drug policy, a field in which she was an early pioneer. In 2012, Feilding was invited by President Otto Pérez Molina to open the Beckley Foundation Latin American Chapter in Guatemala in order to advise the president and his government on drug policy reform.

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