Today, the Home Office announced that it had appointed Dame Carol Black to chair its review into the relationship between drugs and crime. We welcome the appointment of Dame Carol, who has extensive knowledge of substance use issues, and who chaired a major review on substance use, addiction and employment in 2016.
However, in an interview on the Today programme, Dame Carol made it clear that the Home Office have put consideration of drug legalisation or decriminalisation out of scope for this review. This is at best short-sighted; at worst it demonstrates an ideologically-driven refusal to discuss the dynamic at the very heart of the relationship between drugs and crime. The Home Office state this will be “the most in-depth and comprehensive picture of this issue to date”. Instead, it is like announcing a review into the effects of climate change, but putting reducing carbon emissions out of scope.
This approach is simply untenable. It will not be possible for a meaningful consideration of drug supply and its consequences to ignore the legal context in which that supply developed. It will not be possible to consider the social impacts of drugs while overlooking the fact that a large proportion of our prison population is incarcerated for drug-related offences, many of which could be prevented with changes to the law. It will not be reasonable to envisage solutions to the violence associated with drug markets if the authors are forced to turn a blind eye to the possibility that legal reform may be the best route to reducing that violence.
In 2012, the Home Affairs Select Committee looked in detail at the very issues the Black review will need to consider. Although it was cautious about reform, it recognised that any consideration of drug supply needed to take the legal context into account:
As our predecessor Committee supported in their 2002 report, we recommend that the Government initiate a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma
Home Affairs Committee (2012) Drugs: Breaking the Cycle
It was, therefore, reassuring that in her Today interview Dame Carol said she would, indeed, look at impacts of legal reform in Portugal and Canada, and she made a firm commitment to look carefully at the evidence around legalisation and decriminalisation.
We hope this is indeed the case, and recognise it is keeping with her approach to previous reviews. Having committed to taking an evidence-based approach to the issue, it is inconceivable that Dame Carol will wish, or be able to, simply ignore the elephant in the room. We wish Dame Carol well with what will be a difficult task, and hope that she is able to consider the evidence objectively and fairly – without pressure from above to proceed as if considering legal reform is not key to addressing the task she has been set.