14th September 2020
The chilling opening sequence of Chernobyl shows a control room on the brink of catastrophe: dials spin, walls shake, staff plead for a change of instruction. As hell breaks loose, the chief engineer — one Anatoly Dyatlov — remains impervious: robotically insisting that everyone just keep going. Change nothing; the readings are simply wrong.
I was reminded of this scene when reading the UK Government’s response to the Scottish Affairs Committee report on drug problems, published this week. After months of deliberation, including eight expert witness sessions, public engagement events, and international fact-finding visits, the Committee produced nineteen considered recommendations to address the record levels of drug-related deaths in Scotland.
All but three were rejected.
Some, such as the need to declare a public health emergency, have support from across the UK drug sector. Others, such as reducing the stigma associated with drug use should not have been controversial, though in accepting this call the Minister was at pains to note the ‘positive elements of stigma’ (sic) in preventing use. The call to formally end the criminalisation of people who use drugs, despite having considerable support in Scotland, was likely to be rejected at this stage, though the response usefully notes that police forces have discretion to apply diversion schemes in their area. The recommendation that local areas be enabled to open safer drug consumption facilities (something health providers, treatment services and senior politicians have repeatedly called for) was met with a response that essentially boiled down to: ‘it’s too complicated’.
That the UK Government simply waved away the majority of the recommendations was disappointing, but not altogether surprising. The manner in which the claims were dismissed, however, was dispiriting.
The Committee had thoroughly, carefully and critically gathered evidence from across the world — precisely as should be expected from an inquiry of this sort. The response? A series of blanket rejections, and predictable threats to ‘choke off the supply of drugs’, ‘relentlessly pursue’ organised criminals, and ‘crack down’ on suppliers instead.
Since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act fifty years ago, this has been the boilerplate stance. Despite all the evidence of the harms associated with the illegal trade, and the continuing failure of enforcement to reduce tackle them(as laid out in detail in a recent independent review of drug markets commissioned by the Home Office), the answer stays the same: just keep going; change nothing; the readings are incorrect.
The recommendations deserved, at the least, a robust counter-argument. It is not enough for the Ministers and civil servants charged with overseeing drug policy to simply repeat the tired dogma that more enforcement will achieve the intended results. No evidence was presented that it ever will. The review of drugs led by Dame Carol Black is doing exemplary work in gathering evidence on use, harms, interventions and treatment — but it remains blocked from considering the upstream policy drivers. When it comes to consideration of the law, the system freezes.
We know that fear and inertia, rather than ill-will, often cause bad policy — and the legion of ex- senior politicians who decry their previous commitment to the drug war as soon as they are able suggests this is a systemic problem. The cursory responses to calls for policy change in the Scottish Affairs Committee report hardly show enthusiasm for the arguments in favour of the status quo. Rather, they read like weary mantras: the kind of conceptual ‘path dependence’ that we know puts the brakes on political innovation.
Unlike ‘Chernobyl’ then, this seems less a case of blind commitment and more a state of institutional inertia. But whether it is a genuine belief that enforcement will work, the routine blocking of reform, or just avoidance of complex actions, the consequences are the same: a catastrophe unchecked.
We need, and must hope we will get, policymakers who are prepared to break the mould. Today’s drug markets are unrecognisable to when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced in 1971. It is inconceivable that drug policy will be the same in another fifty years time, so it is a matter of when (and how) change happens — not if it will happen at all.
It may be a brave politician who shifts the dial on drug policy today, but in future those who didn’t risk looking rather like the hapless Anatoly Dyatlov. That would be the worst outcome for everyone.
James Nicholls, Chief Executive Officer