Alex Massie

In Praise of... Bob Ainsworth

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Hats-off to the former Home Office Minister and Secretary of State for Defence who will use a Westminster Hall debate today to say:

“I have just been reading the Coalition Government’s new Drugs Strategy. It is described by the Home Secretary as fundamentally different to what has gone before; it is not. To the extent that it is different, it is potentially harmful because it retreats from the principle of harm reduction, which has been one of the main reasons for the reduction in acquisitive crime in recent years.

However, prohibition has failed to protect us. Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harms to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit. We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.

As drugs minister in the Home Office I saw how prohibition fails to reduce the harm that drugs cause in the UK, fuelling burglaries, gifting the trade to gangsters and increasing HIV infections. My experience as Defence Secretary, with specific responsibilities in Afghanistan, showed to me that the war on drugs creates the very conditions that perpetuate the illegal trade, while undermining international development and security.

My departure from the front benches gives me the freedom to express my long held view that, whilst it was put in place with the best of intentions, the war on drugs has been nothing short of a disaster.

Politicians and the media need to engage in a genuine and grown up debate about alternatives to prohibition, so that we can build a consensus based on delivering the best outcomes for our children and communities. I call on those on all sides of the debate to support an independent, evidence-based review, exploring all policy options, including: further resourcing the war on drugs, decriminalising the possession of drugs, and legally regulating their production and supply.

One way to do this would be an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act in line with the 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee finding – which included David Cameron – for the government to explore alternatives to prohibition, including legal regulation.

The re-legalisation of alcohol in the US after thirteen years of Prohibition was not surrender. It was a pragmatic move based on the government’s need to retake control of the illegal trade from violent gangsters. After 50 years of global drug prohibition it is time for governments throughout the world to repeat this shift with currently illegal drugs.”

One may quibble with some of the detail here but that would be to miss the point. The broad thrust of Ainsworth's comments deserves praise, not nit-picking.

That said, it's a shame that so many politicians only decide - or admit - that the Drug War is a grotesque, immoral, unjust failure after they've left office. Their conversions would be more powerful if they occurred in office - even if one can understand why they are reluctanct to speak their minds while they're receiving the Red Boxes each night.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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