Martyn McLaughlin: Brushing drug abuse under legal carpet

Leah Betts died 20 years ago after taking ecstasy before  her 18th birthday party
Leah Betts died 20 years ago after taking ecstasy before her 18th birthday party
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Ignoring the mistakes of past policies condemns us to repeat them, laments Martyn McLaughlin

It is testament to the emotional power of the defining photograph of Leah Betts that, despite the passing of a generation, it has never quite been displaced from the public imagination.

Twenty years ago today, the Essex student was getting ready for her 18th birthday party when she swallowed a small white tablet with an apple motif. Within 48 hours, she fell into a coma from which she would not recover.

The image released by her family shortly afterwards showing the teenager hooked up to a ventilator at Chelmsford’s Broomfield Hospital, clinging on to life amid a tangle of tubes, tape and wires, became a form of shorthand more potent than any sermon or censure.

Leah’s father, Paul, and stepmother, Janet, who would go on to channel their grief into a tireless campaign throughout thousands of schools, issued a statement as their daughter fought for survival. “Our children must become more aware of the dangers,” they said. “Drugs are like sex education – a subject to be brushed under the carpet. That can’t be right.”

Two decades after they dared to tread where no minister had gone before, whatever hopes the couple might have had that personal tragedy would bequeath a positive legacy have yet to be realised.

Earlier this year, the Home Office quietly released a flurry of statistics which put paid to the notion that the nebulous concept known as the war on drugs is being won. The figures showed that ecstasy use among young people has risen to its highest level for more than a decade, with 5.4 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds taking the drug last year, an annual increase of 95,000.

Consumption of cocaine and LSD is also on the rise among this demographic, while separate statistics showed that, in Scotland, the number of drug-related deaths has risen to its highest level since records began.

In recent days, there have been calls for Scotland to kickstart the discussion surrounding decriminalisation. Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, made an acute observation when he condemned a lack of willingness amongst his peers to engage with the issue. “It is a failure of our political debate and it is one that has a really tangible impact on people’s lives,” he said.

While there is a place for Holyrood to provide some momentum, the Scottish Government has signalled it has no plans to support the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs. In any case, it is likely any debate would descend into another constitutional argument dominated by the devolution of drugs laws.

The focus should instead fall on the wholesale failure to gauge the efficacy of the UK-wide strategy, one of the underappreciated political scandals of our times. Some 44 years after the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, drugs policy has barely evolved. Gallingly, there has been no proper impact assessment or cost-benefit analysis of existing legislation.

An approach shaped by criminal justice practitioners rather than the health and scientific communities now accounts for around £3 billion of annual public spending, yet there is no evidence that the money is being well spent.

Even more remarkably, there is no appetite in parliament to redress this oversight. A backbench business debate brought to the Commons last autumn by Caroline Lucas MP, was the first time the issue had been properly debated for several years, but its impact was limited.

The only substantive piece of Home Office research of late was a damning indictment of the British approach. A two-year long fact-finding exercise across 14 nations, it ruled out any “obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”.

The study should have prompted an unprecedented review of drugs policy. Instead, what is being presented as progress in the form of the Psychoactive Substances Bill is merely the latest mis-step. Policing minister Mike Penning and his colleagues have sought little input from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The statutory body was set up by the Heath administration to ensure science underpinned policy, but the government’s disregard for the organisation now extends to full blown contempt.

Unlike the Misuse of Drugs Act, which prevents the Home Secretary from banning a drugs without taking on board the council’s views, the new bill would allow the government to choose its own advisers.

This is an open invitation to perpetuate the dogma, assumption and authoritarianism that guides political decision-making over drugs policy, in spite of the fact there is a clear appetite for reform, both within the Commons and outside it.

Polls have shown that over two-thirds of the public support a review of drugs policy, while a study for the UK Drugs Policy Commission found more than three-quarters of MPs deem the existing legislation as ineffective.

In public, however, courage has a habit of deserting our elected representatives, who favour tough posturing for cheap headlines as opposed to considering the intricacies of an evidence-based approach.

Three days before Leah Betts died as a result of water intoxication, the family’s MP, David Amess, called for all parties to “unite in the crusade” against drug abuse. It is, the veteran MP warned, “a most evil practice”.

Two decades later, the same MP, notoriously duped by satirist Chris Morris into tabling a parliamentary question about a fictional drug called Cake, is now the chair of the Psychoactive Substances Bill committee. Were it not so desperately predictable, you’d swear they were twisting our melons on purpose.