Approximate reading time: 2 minutes

Author: Martin Powell, Head of Partnerships at Transform Drug Policy Foundation

In response to ‘The Conservative Paradox’ by John Gray, 31st January 2024

John Gray’s assessment that the Conservative Party has multiple factions built on conflicting ideologies is encapsulated by an issue he mentions - its approach to drugs (The NS Essay, 2 February). What appears to be hypocrisy - the Party backs individual freedom, but bans people from choosing certain drugs - is in fact libertarian voices being overridden by the party’s moralising and authoritarian wings.

Such a broadchurch will not unite behind one ideology, but could they unite on an issue by issue basis? Not through presenting evidence that conflicts with any ideological position. A graphic example of this was watching the UK Government’s ministers all troop out of the hall of their own 2020 UK drug deaths summit before the Portuguese officials they had invited spoke. They literally did not want to hear how decriminalisation of personal use of drugs has freed up resources, led to more people seeking treatment, and reduced problematic use, drug deaths, HIV infections, and numbers in prison for drug offences, all without increasing use.

Perhaps instead it is about framing. John Gray has written elsewhere that the answer is to not only stop criminalising people who take drugs, but to take the drug market itself out of the hands of organised crime and into the hands of doctors, pharmacists and licensed retailers. As with other risky activities, this should be done by legalising, regulating and controlling it. In other words, backing smaller government by replacing current huge criminal justice interventions with smarter smaller regulatory interventions. Saving young and vulnerable lives, reducing acquisitive crime, pressure on the health system, numbers excluded from employment by criminal records, and raising revenue. So smaller government in this case will “shield communities”, as Gray calls for, from areas of insecurity.

Historically, however, what has united Conservatives of disparate ideologies is doing what is needed to get power. It appears that Labour is following this path too. Yet, as Gray notes, the popularity of whoever wins the next election won’t last long if they don’t reduce pressure on our crumbling health and criminal justice systems, and drivers of street crime. So, delivering drug policy reform - however framed - is also the realpolitik option.