For the next three days, the most important meeting on global drug policy since the 1990s will take place in New York. The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) will see governments from around the world coming together to discuss the best way to move forward on the issue, yet despite an international groundswell of drug law reform in recent years – from Colorado and Washington DC to Portugal and Uruguay, and legal cannabis markets set for Canada and California – it’s unlikely to change anything.
The countries worse affected by global prohibition – such as Colombia and Mexico, where the war on drugs has put control of the market into the hands of violent cartels – are desperate for reform. But their pleas for decriminalisation and a regulated drug trade will get nowhere. This is due partly to aggressive lobbying by drug policy hardliners such as Iran and Indonesia, who prefer to execute their way out of the problem, but mainly because more liberal, Western governments have decided to turn a blind eye.
To the British government – which is currently presiding over record numbers of drug deaths, the endless criminalisation of non-violent drug users and an organised crime network financed by the illegal drug trade – this UN meeting might as well not be happening at all. Who cares about putting an end to the widespread harm caused by prohibition, in the UK and beyond, when it’s safer to do nothing and avoid any potential flak from a largely reactionary British media?
Drug policy “scares the life out of Westminster”, according to Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader turned drug policy reformer. As Deputy Prime Minister between 2010 and 2015, Clegg had a ringside seat as the government throttled a succession of attempts, mainly by him, to start a sensible debate about drug policy. Last week, I met with the MP for Sheffield Hallam in his office overlooking Big Ben to ask him about Parliament’s big drug problem.
Nick Clegg: This isn’t an episode of The Sopranos; it’s government. The political community here, the two main parties, are stuck in this orthodoxy which says you can’t talk about drugs without causing unpopularity with voters. But it’s as out of date as being opposed to equal marriage.
Do MPs honestly think the status quo on drugs is OK?
I know countless Conservative MPs who privately agree that the war on drugs is not working and that we should take a different approach. But they are fearful of the political reaction from the voters they are seeking to appeal to. The Conservative Party pretends, despite what the private views of MPs are, that everything is fine, that it’s all going swimmingly, that the approach to drugs is working in this country. Even though they know privately that the status quo is not healthy at all – that it’s not good for Britain. To turn a blind eye to that is a deeply irresponsible thing to do, particularly for no other reason than a venal sense of political self-interest.
It seems like it’s almost Tory party policy to be hypocritical when it comes to drugs.
It became obvious to me that the Conservatives have just decided politically that they didn’t want to touch the drug issue with a bargepole, because it would cost them votes. They’ve made a pretty straightforward crude political calculation that they would rather talk about other things rather than risk offending older voters who are the bedrock of their present political support. If you know something is doing harm to your fellow citizens, and you know that you can do something to help them, but you don’t do so to protect your own political skin, then that is an irresponsible and hypocritical thing to do.
Do you think drug policy reform, or even discussing it, would actually cost the government votes?
No. I think their fears are wrong. Large parts of the public, particularly young people, have moved on, and governments have an incentive to reach out to younger voters. If The Sun and The Economist can advocate for reform, you would hope the government would start changing its own assumptions. But next week there is a major UN summit and the government can’t even be bothered to send a senior ministerial representative.
Placards in Hyde Park during the 2015 4/20 smoke-out (Photo by Jake Lewis)
In the last government, did you ever talk to David Cameron personally about drugs?
No, we didn’t talk about it because I knew what he would say. I think you might imagine there was some great long conversation, but there was no conversation at all. The Home Secretary Theresa May has always been singularly unimaginative on this subject.
How did the Tories smother the debate on drugs while you were in government?
When the Home Affairs Select Committee report concluded [in 2012] that there should be a Royal Commission to examine drug policy, David Cameron came out of the traps immediately saying he didn’t think there should be. Despite the Conservative’s resistance, I set up a Home Office drug policy review. Theresa May had to deliver it with gritted teeth, because I told her she had to. They did not want it at all. Actually, more than that, when it was completed they tried to change it. In fact, they filleted it, which was a pity because the original version of the report included some really quite thoughtful recommendations that were removed.
But it was a worthwhile exercise; it was the first time Whitehall had to acknowledge that there was no relationship between levels of prohibition and rates of drug consumption. I also commissioned a Treasury report looking at what we could gain if Britain regulated the cannabis market, which was published in full, but only because the Conservatives didn’t know about it. These reports now stand on the record, regardless of how much the press mocked the Liberal Democrats.
What will the impact be of the UN special general assembly on drugs this week?
I had hoped for a signal that governments had come to understand that the war on drugs era has had its day; that the world was open to new approaches. What I’m now expecting is a lot less than that. The hardliners – the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese and some of the Asian countries – have profited from the political indifference of the US and European countries. So it’s a standstill summit, which is a shame, because for courageous politicians, such as Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, it’s a slap in the face. It’s unfair, because countries like Colombia and Mexico are on the front line – they know what a pernicious thing it is. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
What happens if more counties, like Uruguay, ignore the UN conventions?
The UN system will become increasingly irrelevant in the drug debate and its conventions will appear increasingly anachronistic. That’s not good if you believe in international law. Because the hardliners have been allowed to hijack this process, reformers will think, ‘To hell with the UN system, let’s just get on with our own experiment.’ That will happen. It’s happening anyway with Uruguay and will happen with Canada. In the long-run, this will significantly weaken the credibility of the UN in this whole debate.Why did you get so deeply involved in drug policy reform? What about a quiet life in rural Spain?
Because what we are doing is bone-headed and stupid. Ludicrously, we are locking people up who need treatment while allowing criminal gangs to go free.
Do you foresee any experimental drug policies being set up in the UK, like say legalising weed in the Isle of Wight, or MDMA in Brighton?
It is happening already, even though it hasn’t been blessed by the government, with the de facto decriminalisation of cannabis by police in Durham. They are refusing to use police resources to go after people who have cannabis for personal use. Oddly enough, this experiment is being driven by the pressure on police resources. So maybe, in a sort of odd British way. we’ll get there – in a sort of sideways manner.
When do you see a regulated drug market coming to the UK?
Other parts of the world are moving forward. Bit by bit that will make a big difference. If those experiments are broadly successful it will be increasingly difficult to sustain the argument for the status quo. Assuming the Canadians do it in a sensible way and cannabis regulation is shown to be effective, I would hope that within a decade Britain could follow suit. I’d like to think that, in 50 years, we will look back and think that what we were doing to people with drug and mental health problems, and the warehousing of such large numbers in prisons, was as uncivilised and self-defeating as sending kids up chimneys. Even if other people don’t speak out, I will continue to. I did so in office and will do so out of office.
Nick Clegg has contributed a chapter to Ending the War on Drugs, published last month by Richard Branson.