Darren Hall, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Bristol West, chaired the debate. Darren opened proceedings with some thought provoking experiences from his time at the Home Office, where he commissioned drug treatment services, highlighting the links between drug use and issues such as family breakdown, social isolation and sex work.
Throughout the evening there was clear consensus that current drugs legislation is not fit for purpose.
The scale of the problem is huge: panellist, Maggie Telfer, CEO of Bristol Drugs Project, pointed out that research shows 1 in 5 people have been personally affected by drug problems. Fellow panellist, Dr. Ben Sessa, a psychiatrist who has worked in drugs research for many years, argued powerfully that the war on drugs is ‘the biggest socio-political failure of the last forty years’. People have taken drugs since the beginning of time and will continue to do so. Prohibiting certain substances is as foolish and will fail as surely as the US’s attempt to prohibit alcohol in the 1920s.
Charley Pattison, a barrister at Queen Square Chambers, explained the frustration of being bound by a framework that prosecutes people for drug offences, despite offenders often having multiple unaddressed health and social needs. She explained that many offenders become more involved with drugs during their time in prison. Danny Kushlick, panellist and founder of Transform, also explored this relationship that seems to exist between confinement and addiction, in discussing the 1970s ‘Rat Park’ experiment. This experiment found that rats living alone in tiny cages chose to drink opium-laced, rather than pure water, some to the point of deadly overdose. Contrastingly those living together in a large space largely ignored the opium-laced water, indicating the potentially huge role of social and environmental factors in addiction.
Confining drug offenders in prisons, like the rats in the experiment, is a disastrous sociological experiment that has gone on too long. It is Green Party policy to decriminalise drugs and treat addiction humanely, as the social and heath issue it is.
Health was a key area on which the panellists were able to agree the war on drugs had flatly failed. Dr. Diana Warner, Green Party Candidate for Filton & Bradley Stoke, was clear that from her perspective as a practicing GP alcohol is incredibly damaging, despite its non-prohibited status. The Green Party recognises the health risks of both illegal and legal drugs: regulations on illegal substances, but also much tighter rules on the alcohol and tobacco industries are Green Party policy.
The speakers agreed that harm-reduction approaches, introduced increasingly as prohibition has failed, have had some success in combating drug abuse. GP, Diana Warner, spoke of the vital role for drug replacement and needle exchange programmes in reducing harm in Hartcliff, where heroin use is high. The Green Party supports such harm reduction approaches to drug use.
Financially the drugs war was also denounced as a total failure. Ben Sessa argued that whilst the people have lost out in every imaginable way, the drinks industry, and of course organised crime syndicates have grown unimaginably rich from current drugs policy: cannabis is the third biggest cash crop on the planet. Bringing these industries into regulation would mean huge tax revenue could be collected and used to fund education, health and social care. See Green Party policy on this here.
The global conflict that has been a product of the war on drugs was also a major issue of concern for the panellists. Transform’s Danny described the devastation the drugs war has wreaked on countries in the Americas. Over 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drugs wars. He argued there are huge international security benefits to be gained from shifting to a regulated regime. Diana also discussed this, describing her horror of hearing that the invasion of Northern Mali had been financed by the illegal drugs trade, and how this finally convinced her of the case for regulation.
With a quick show of hands demonstrating the audience was in firm agreement that the war on drugs had failed, the debate moved on, asking: what viable alternatives exist? Ben Sessa argued for an, ‘accessible, safe and regulated’ policy towards drugs to be adopted. He acknowledged this would be a PR challenge however, given those who moralise about the dangers of illegal drugs often do so with a cigarette in one hand and a pint in the other! Meanwhile successive governments are all too willing to pander to this moralising agenda, as the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the previous Labour government attests to.
Maggie Telfer from BDP, queried how it is possible to create a comprehensive regulatory system when so many new substances – so-called ‘legal highs’ - are being created every day. Danny gave a response to this, outlining the work Transform have done in creating a blueprint for regulation. He also seemed optimistic, arguing that the mood of the nation is changing and that people are more amenable than ever to the idea of drugs reform.
Darren Hall rounded off the evening with an appeal for people to exercise their democratic right to vote come May. If drugs policy is to be transformed then the electorate need to be politically shrewd, engaging officials on this subject. Mind-altering substances are here to stay whether we like it or not. A vote for the Green Party is a vote to end the destructive and futile war on drugs, and a vote for the beginning of a much more humane and more rational response.
[Following this event, Darren Hall published the following article in the Huffington Post, calling for the use of evidence in tackling the causes of drug use]
[Special thanks to Liam Keown for providing photos of this event]