Good for Bob

Bob Ainsworth is in the news, I see calling for the decriminalisation of drugs.

Good for him.

Isay this, not because I agree with him (I don’t), but because this intelligent intervention in the debate is exactly what you would like from ex-ministers, who are no longer burdened with conserns like getting the party they are a part of re-elected, but which I mean it’s an intelligent contribution to an important, controversial debate, which will force those who disagree to explain why, and is done for good public policy, not personal political motives. After all, no politician suggests decriminalising all drugs out of excesive concern for their future political prospects.

That said, If I were in Ed Miliband’s office, I’d be drafting exactly the same statement that they have issued.

Why? For three reasons.

First, what Bob has said is not, and will not be, the policy of the Labour party.

Second, the public massively disagree with Bob Ainsworth on this. Political parties have to take account of what the public thinks.

(These are both the reasons why Bob was right not to speak out when in office. As a minister, you ask questions and debate internally, then accept the verdict of your colleagues or resign. You don’t get to have both power and freedom of speech, sadly)

Third, although there is some evidence of good outcomes from Drug decriminalisation, the experience in Portugal (where posession of more than 0.2g of cocaine or 2.5g of marijuana is still subject to criminal charge. People get the wrong idea about that) certainly doesn’t show any major reduction of drug use.

Indeed, there appear to have increases in drug use. So you’d be unlikely to see an end to drug supply, or a reduction in drug cultivation.

The advantage apears to come dmestically, in the pressure on prison places, treatment and death rates – and certainly there, the data is at best inconclusive. It looks like drugs are cheaper, slightly more used, and fewer drug users are in prison – but for example, the decline in drug users with HIV, often lauded as a result of decriminalisation,  is just as notable in Spain, where drugs are still illegal but treatment programmes are widely spread, while the death rate data seems more related to Heroin usage than criminalisation in most nations.

So, as I say, I think Bob is wrong, and I understand why his political leadership is condemning him.

At the same time, I’m glad he’s spoken out, and I’m glad we get to have the debate.

I’ve one final reason to be glad Bob Ainsworth is speaking out. He’s been unfairly characterised in the media and amongst bloggers as a bit of a dolt. His moustache, his glasses, his accent, all count against him in the sneering world of the grubbier street hack. They make him a perfect target for the Letts and the Hoggarts. Part of me is simply pleased that such pundits have missed the measure of the man.

29 Responses to “Good for Bob”

  1. Stephen Wood

    Hmm. I’m not sure about your argument here. For starters, I think the fact that the public massively disagree is not really the point. The public massively disagrees with all political parties about the death penalty, for example – but I assume you wouldn’t argue for Labour adopting that policy, even though it would be politically hugely advantageous. By and large the public don’t want decriminalization because they’ve been told that these drugs are bad for many many years, and the use of these drugs is pretty limited (the exception, of course, being cannabis, and surprise surprise that is the drug where there is most support for some form of legalization).
    Secondly, I realise that you were not trying to make a fair appraisal of the literature but find evidence that supports you, but even so it’s pretty small beer. ‘No major reduction of drug use’ is a weaselly sort of phrase – what would you regard as major? The paper you cite points to reductions in problematic use and drug-related harm – is this then worthless?
    Finally, you ignore the crucial aspect of drug policy that I find most frustrating – it appears to have no relationship with the harm each drug causes. I can see no argument (other than custom and tradition) for the continued legality of alcohol while mushrooms or cannabis (for example) remain banned.

    • hopisen

      Well, there was actually an increase in drug use in Portugal post decriminalisation.

      I was trying to understate this because there was also an increase in drug use in nearby states, so it wasn’t as if Portugal was suffering noticeably worse than Spain, for example.

      As for reductions in harms – I noted that there is sime evidence to support this, but it’s at best inconclusive. The paper refers to Death rates, nad notes that they appear to be more closely liked to Heroin than decriminalistion, and the HIV fall is as big in spain, and seems to be related to availability of treatment.

      The major difference noted in the paper is decline of drug users in prison, which is a bit self evident really. It’s not as if Portugal saw a major fall in crime across the same period, so you could point to that and say- see, decriminalisation has major external goods (the cato paper on this is pretty terrible imo, very selective in data usage, as i find libertarians often are.)

      • Stephen Wood

        If we accept your conclusion that the evidence for harm reduction is inconclusive, would you therefore accept that the evidence for increased harm is basically not present? Increased use in and of itself is not evidence of harmful use. Therefore, why are these substances still criminalized? And to return to my last point above, why these in particular and not others?

    • hopisen

      TBH, I Think that poll is leading. It took _me_ three reads to grasp that “strict state control” was in fact decriminalisation. Put a word like strict into that poll and you blow it up.

      (I’m generally suspisicious of polls that try and put lengthy “explanations” into the questions. The explanations lead, whether intended to or not)

      I have seen other data on attitudes to decrim, will try and dig it up.

      • ad

        “Strict state control” starts by saying:

        Availability restricted to licensed pharmacists or treatment clinics with age restrictions and a ban on branding and marketing.

        Did it really take three reads to realise that things on sale at pharmacists must not be banned?

    • hopisen

      Some more recent polling


      Yes 27 No 73

      In general current UK (2008) drugs laws are:

      Too liberal 32 About right 50 Not liberal enough 18

      Make posession legal, but not dealing?:

      Yes – 38 No – 62

      People should go to prison for possession?

      Yes – 63 No – 37

      I want to meet the people who want to make possession legal, but also send people to prison for it!

      On the other hand, there’s also a politicshome poll from last years furore that shows 19% favour legalising all drugs, 33% supporting legalising “some” drugs. 43% against legalising any.

      Of course, what “some” means is quite important there.

      • Mark Thompson

        I think you are making my point for me. You said the public are “massively” against Ainsworth on this. I pointed to a poll that contradicted that, at least for some drugs such as cannabis. You have some polls that tilt the other way and one that broadly agrees with the one I linked to. So mixed results.

        That hardly constitutes massively against but that is the myth that is constantly peddled. That to want to liberalise drug laws is some sort of extremist and extreme minority position. That is just not true.

  2. Brian Hughes

    When I heard Mr A on the radio I formed the impression that his main concern was to decriminalise the supply chain rather than on how users might be affected.

    There’s an obvious analogy with US prohibition. Its abolition certainly massively increased the consumption of alcohol but also meant that the hoodlums had to look elsewhere for their rewards.

    He also expressed frustration that drugs policy (eg the downgrading and upgrading on cannabis) seems to be dictated largely by the Daily Mail. Which begs the age old question – are the views of its readers driven by the content of the Mail or is the content of the Mail driven by the views of its readers?

    Very untrustworthy stuff this public opinion. And you’re right to be suspicious about surveys thereof. As they used to say on Blankety Blank – the clue to the answer is in the question.

  3. CS Clark

    Following from this blogpost from Tom Freeman, perhaps we can see a poll of people’s views on the legalisation of a) cannabis b) Ecstasy c) Soma d) Cake.

  4. bert

    “He’s been unfairly characterised in the media and amongst bloggers as a bit of a dolt.”

    It’s not just the media and bloggers who – rightly – think he’s an idiot. So do the Labour party (no great measure of reasoned thinking, I know). John Mann rubbished his argument in about three or four minutes on TV today – and he’s not exactly compos mentis himself.

    It’s still amusing to see the rectum and the anus of the Labour party bickering live on television, though.

  5. Davis Walsh

    My take is that he has posed questions that need to be debated. But, on the other hand, living in an area where poverty and high unemployment have eroded self-esteem to a point where most of our internalised crime has at its root an addiction problem, I can guess the instinctive reaction of most (Labour voting) folk to the idea. It also strikes me as odd that Bob obviously went along – when he was a MOD minister – with the argument that we needed to eradicate the Afghan poppy economy – and the deaths amongst servicemen that have followed from this.

  6. Newmania

    Yes I have to say the Labour Party only got the ‘measure of the man’ when there was absolutely no-one else left .One takes it that this sort of off piste frolic is evidence of the high esteeem in which the leader is held.

  7. bert

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  8. roger alexander

    ‘ He’s been unfairly characterised in the media and amongst bloggers as a bit of a dolt. His moustache, his glasses, his accent, all count against him in the sneering world of the grubbier street hack. ‘

    Wrong.its his uncanny resemblance to ‘Blakey’ from the tv comedy series on the buses plus his incompetence & gaffs at the MOD.

    • bert

      Don’t forget Roger, Labour has a long and distinguished record for picking less than able people. You only have to listen to the absurd Caroline “kirsty…Kirsty….KIRSTY!!!” Flint, or the ever shrill Chris Bryant, or Brummie failed school teacher, Jacqui Smith – or more recently, a failed postman and economic illiterate – Alan Johnson, right up to the leader himself, a weak opportunist propped up by trade unions. The list goes on and on.

      • BenM


        please point to those titans of intellect in the Tory Party.

        I could do wolith a good laugh!

  9. Gareth Thomas

    We can’t have any kind of intelligent debate while the government refuses to listen to science and instead obeys the shrill call of rags like the Mail.

    Also it is important that the public understands that a drug is a drug. We send mixed messages with how we deal with Alcohol and Nicotine. We should tell people these are drugs, and that if they use them then they are “Drug Users” perhaps then there would be more sympathy for other addicts.

    As a first step the most logical thing is decriminalisation, and like others here I don’t see a public that is massively against it. Perhaps we should also be clear with them just how of much of their tax money is spent on this futile war?

  10. malcolm kyle

    For those of you who are still living in some strange parallel universe, one where prohibition actually works, here is part of the testimony of Judge Alfred J Talley, given before the Senate Hearings of 1926:

    “For the first time in our history, full faith and confidence in and respect for the hitherto sacred Constitution of the United States has been weakened and impaired because this terrifying invasion of natural rights has been engrafted upon the fundamental law of our land, and experience has shown that it is being wantonly and derisively violated in every State, city, and hamlet in the country.”

    “It has made potential drunkards of the youth of the land, not because intoxicating liquor appeals to their taste or disposition, but because it is a forbidden thing, and because it is forbidden makes an irresistible appeal to the unformed and immature. It has brought into our midst the intemperate woman, the most fearsome and menacing thing for the future of our national life.”

    “It has brought the sickening slime of corruption, dishonor, and disgrace into every group of employees and officials in city, State, and Federal departments that have been charged with the enforcement of this odious law.”

  11. malcolm kyle

    The Portuguese government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs in 2001. Five years later, the number of deaths from overdoses dropped from 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400

    Following decriminalization, Portugal had one of the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

    Rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group),8599,1893946,00.html

    A study by Glenn Greenwald (commissioned by the libertarian Cato Institute) found that in the five years after the start of Portuguese decriminalization, drug use by teenagers had declined.

  12. Blue Canary

    I think it’s essential that Labour takes a good hard look in private at where its implementation of policy should have been better. But, fascinating as a discussion on the decriminalization of drugs is, can it really be where Labour wants the public debate to be focused on at the current time?

    • roger alexander

      ‘I think it’s essential that Labour takes a good hard look in private at where its implementation of policy should have been better.’

      Do you think 4.5 years is enough time to do that?

      • Blue Canary

        I’ll assume that wasn’t meant as a rhetorical question. Yes I think it should be plenty of time – as long as the focus is on what went really wrong. The last Government had a lot of good policies that were badly implemented, which is not surprising because there’s very little change that’s easy to deliver in practice. Unfortunately, I think politicians find it more attractive to go for the easier option of inventing a new “big idea” headline policy, not least because it differentiates themselves from their predecessors, rather than focus on practical implementation issues. Of course, Conservative and Lib Dem politicians aren’t immune to this (what the hell does localism mean in practical delivery terms?) so there’s likely to be plenty of opportunities at the next election to demonstrate that Labour could do better.

  13. Robert

    Of course drug addiction it’s self is an illness, at the moment a drug is given out on prescription Methadone, sadly it is one drug which is used to supplement the users habit addiction call it what you like. Giving free drugs without trying to help the people out of the addiction would be just another means of keeping people addicted, then again one you make these users go to rehab then sadly users will look elsewhere.

    How much drugs will you give to users, I know some people who need a fix every two hours some need a fix almost all the time, would the government be willing to basically give an over dose.

    If not then users will seek drugs from dealers.

    If it was as easy as giving people a fix every four hours it would be great, then again users will mix as well using different mixtures to give different hits.

    easy saying give the drugs to users this will rid us of dealers, sadly that bull.

  14. gadge

    Second, the public massively disagree with Bob Ainsworth on this. Political parties have to take account of what the public thinks.

    Im sorry but the public does not “massively” disagree, i think the vast majority think it’s about time political parties stopped caring what the Daily Mail thinks, and have a sensible debate on this subject. The “war” costs millions pa and prevent minimal drugs from hitting the street. This is a massive waste of my taxes. I’m not saying lets legalize everything, but at least lets be adult enough to discuss the matter based on evidence not scare mongering. The govt needs to the take their head out their arses, or sand, whichever…..

    • bert

      My understanding is that the one or two countries that have tried decriminalisation have seen a rise in crime and dependency, though I’m sure one of the anally retentive bods here will correct me if I am wrong.

      There may well be some merits to decriminalise, even legalise, but it would be electoral suicide. Labour voters may sneer at Daily Mail and Express readers – but when election time comes, they’ll be pandered to by all political parties, so let’s stop the smug piety attacking law abiding middle class newspaper readers.


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