David Cameron's drug policy hypocrisy has garnered reasonable attention in recent weeks, though just how progressive he was before becoming Conservative leader -- from favouring heroin prescribing to pushing for supervised injection sites -- has largely gone unnoticed.
While Twitter was exploding with porcine puns and the Guardian was desperately trying to refocus public attention on Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom status in the wake of snippets from his revelatory biography of Cameron, claims that the Prime Minister had once visited a so-called crack den to find a relative struggling with problematic drug use failed to grab headlines.
Indeed, in a 2002 speech to Parliament debating the conclusions of a Home Affairs Select Committee report on drug policy, Cameron began with a plea citing personal experience of the pain of encountering drug misuse first-hand as the reason for his desire for reform.
“If one takes a slightly progressive -- or, as I like to think of it, thoughtful -- view,” Cameron said, “one can sometimes be accused of being soft. I reject that utterly. Friends and people close to me have had their lives ruined by drug abuse and I want us to tackle the problem properly.”
As with many policies he would later renounce (child tax credits, no top-down reorganisation of the NHS, support for renewable energy) Cameron has since performed a remarkable about-face on the drug policy stance he held as a young MP.
Here are some of the key quotes from his 2002 speech which can be read in full here:
DC: “[M]ethadone is not suitable for everyone. Some very chaotic drug users need to be stabilised, and perhaps heroin is the answer for them … The fact that 3,500 people died last year from drug overdoses shames us. Most importantly, whatever treatment is chosen -- including heroin prescribing for the hardest cases -- at least the people concerned are getting into treatment and making contact with the agencies and the people who can help them.”
Moving though it is to see Cameron’s sense of national shame over these deaths, and a determination to use evidence-based policy to help people who use drugs problematically, it is puzzling that despite 3,346 drug-related deaths last year -- the highest on record (N.B. Cameron's 3,500 figure is incorrect) -- he has abandoned all these reformist beliefs in favour of a self-satisfied quietism.
The UK has experimented with heroin assisted treatment (HAT) in the past decade, with the Randomised Injectable Opioid Treatment Trial (RIOTT) finding that HAT reduced criminal activity and the use of "street" heroin, and was a cheaper option than criminalising a problematic heroin user and housing them in the country's penitentiary system. Prescribing diamorphine -- the medical term for heroin -- has been legal in the UK since 1926, but never formally weaved into a national drugs strategy. The chance of it being brought in under a Conservative government are incredibly remote now, despite Cameron's apparent support for it in the not so distant past.
Supervised injection facilities (SIFs)
DC: “People who live in inner-city areas whose children have to step over drug paraphernalia in the streets and on housing estates deserve a break from heroin use in their communities. That takes me back to the point that safe injecting rooms at least get heroin users to a place where they can be contacted by the treatment agencies so that the work of trying to get them off drugs can start.”
There are currently 98 supervised injection facilities in 66 cities across the world and the evidence base for their efficacy is enormous, from reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, to combating the rate of overdose deaths. For example, at the facility in Vancouver, Canada, there has never been an overdose death since it opened in 2003, despite there being around 1,000 visits to the centre per day.
If Cameron were as concerned now about combating drug-related deaths as he was in 2002, SIFs would certainly be front and centre of his strategy, particularly with heroin/morphine related deaths accounting for over 25 percent of all drug-related deaths in the UK in 2014.
Cameron's general disillusionment with a 'tough on drugs' approach
Release's executive director, Niamh Eastwood, made the point in a recent blog post that "Cameron should revisit his 2002 speech, not only for himself, but for the sake of the people being damaged daily by his government's failing drug laws." With the following quotes taken from said speech, it's hard to argue.
"It is impossible to control from Whitehall the number of drugs that will be taken, what new drugs will appear and what will happen to the figures. If the figures do not do the right thing, I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work."
"I hope that the Government will be brave. We are seeing some progress, although they are, I am afraid, sometimes fond of using tough language on subjects such as crime and asylum. This is not a time for tough language; they must just get it right. The Home Secretary called for an adult debate and I welcome that, but I did not welcome his response to the report, as he immediately ruled out one or two recommendations."
Cameron has expressed no willingness, and indeed has flatly refused, to have an "adult debate" on the UK's drug laws now. It is nothing short of a tragedy that he seems to have forgotten the evidence he once believed and the life-saving policies he advocated.
This article was originally published on TalkingDrugs on 05/10/2015