Monday, 3 November 2014

On the irrationality of drug policy

The reports on drug policy released last week by the UK Government have prompted a raft of interesting responses.  One of the wider interpretations is Desmond Manderson’s piece for The Conversation.

He takes a different perspective from much commentary by going back to basics and asking what prohibitive drugs laws are for, arguing that ‘the legal structure of drug laws is not an attempt to regulate or solve a problem, but on the contrary an attempt to dramatise a worldview’.  That is, prohibition reflects the desire for there to be clear lines between right and wrong and for authority to be able to enforce this.

In such an interpretation, policymakers are seen as being ‘afraid’ of ‘a “permissive” world in which such bright lines cannot be drawn’, making them act ‘like men possessed’.  I’d suggest instead that drug policy is a good case study of how nuanced and complex policymaking can be.

Think of harm reduction measures – and Manderson laments how these are undervalued in drug policy discussions.  Needle exchanges in Britain are a good example of pragmatic policymaking, conflicting with other elements of policy and broader ‘world views’, but somehow working.  Needle exchanges are state-funded facilities that – in one interpretation – facilitate law-breaking.*  But they were established by a Conservative government, and reveal that it is Manderson who is thinking more in terms of ‘bright lines’ than the politicians.

Politicians, in practice, often take a classically conservative view of the world.  That is, they are cautious about fundamentally reshaping policy.  Sometimes this is seen as the result of them being captured by the civil service or focus group findings, and it can lead to the feeling – expressed in relation to Prime Ministers at least from Harold Wilson to David Cameron that they have betrayed their party and the true believers.

Many laws and policies are not followed absolutely.  Whenever anyone (like Peter Hitchens) complains that drugs policies are not enforced, I wonder about driving and the possibility that there might be some people who have not been prosecuted on occasions when they have gone over the speed limit.

The reality of the situation regarding drug laws is not that politicians are ‘possessed’ or even necessarily ill-motivated.  It’s that they would argue – as Paul Hayes does – that drug policy in the UK isn’t disastrous, and there’s huge uncertainty around the potential effects of changing the law.  Yes, the current arrangement is a fudge and a fiction, but that’s the nature of policy and law, and any change is indeed a gamble.

It’s the politicians that are much more comfortable with this idea of inconsistent yet pragmatic compromise than detached academics and commentators.  It’s just possible that an illusion is sometimes better than perfect rationality.  This isn’t to say that we couldn’t improve drugs policy, or improve the debate by being open about the compromises involved, but I’d suggest that the decision-making politicians aren’t possessed – unless it’s by the spirit of Burke or Oakeshott.

*Technically, the offence in relation to drugs is possession rather than use, but the point that there is a conflict with wider world views still holds.

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