Drug Reform and Recognising Reality - An interview with Crispin Blunt MP

Below is a transcript of an interview between Crispin Blunt MP and Noah Khogali, a columnist at The New Briton

'Where is your focus on drug reform coming from, because there's a couple obvious points with something like poppers and then psychedelics post-military? I think it was Peter Hitchens who accused you of having a conservative midlife crisis, is that accurate?'

It actually came from when I was Prisons Minister. So, in 2010, I was when the conservatives formed a coalition government with Liberal Democrats, I had actually been expecting to continue my role as shadow security minister and then we didn't move seamlessly across because of course, government places had to be given to the Lib Dems. I found myself as the prisons and probation and youth justice minister. Now I was very excited by what was in the conservative manifesto around prisoner rehabilitation and the proposals we had. But what I began to see in the prison system, and indeed the whole criminal justice system was the fact that probably over half of the business was driven around drug use and addiction, and the cost to society was simply off the scale. And we weren't doing any proper thinking about this. So you would go around and see really good work trying to rehabilitate offenders and an awful lot of it, then entirely dependent on whether you could succeed in sorting out that person's drug addiction, particularly around the more addictive substances such as heroin and crack. And if you couldn't, they had no choice, except to go back and steal, in order to service their habits. And back they would go into jail. And the appalling recidivism race around, people with addiction. And then the impossibility of effectively controlling drug use, even in prisons - in a secure place.

And then I asked my political colleagues privately, so why don't we have a private discussion about the whole merit of the prohibition model we've got, and whether there's a better way of doing this. And the answer came from the minister who was jointly in the home office and Ministry of Justice that we couldn't possibly have that conversation. "What do you mean, even in private? No, it might leak and then it would look as though the government's willingness to stand behind strict drug laws would be breaking".

And the reason it ought to be breaking is something it's pretty structural: It's that the whole global construct of prohibition has produced a policy outcome that is so catastrophic on an epic scale. We have stopped thinking about the basis of the policy, and we're trying to defend something that is utterly indefensible. We've taken a $500 billion industry and handed it lock, stock and barrel to criminals. They sit outside normal checks and balances of a business any operation, because there's an enormous global demand for people to feel better. And most of these things that are not alcohol and tobacco, we have made illegal. And we live with the consequences of that. And the consequences are truly, truly terrible.

There are often two schools of thought in the drug reform debate - economic and social. From your perspective, I assume your main motivator is social?

It's a reduction of harm to society! The policy of prohibition produces 30,000 dead in Mexico every year. Not as a consequence of drug use, but as a consequence of the wars between the cartels, as they fight to own the supply lines into the biggest market in the world in the United States of America. The knife crime here in the UK, which is lucky we've got very tough gun laws otherwise this would be gun crime deaths, as if we were like the United States, where the criminal industry, an industry that we have made criminal to meet the demand that is their fight to protect their territory, and if there is a disruption in your control of your market. It's not like a business where you've been governed by business laws and and practice everything else where you, and you're going to have to add market now perform your, your competitors, here you are outside the law anyway. So you kill the opposition and the sums of money are of course enormous. .

Within the Conservative Party specifically, what do you think has been the biggest barrier over the past decade of conservative government to real reformative change in drug laws?

The reality is that politicians don't want to touch this with a bargepole! You're in a safe place if you sit on your moral mountain and you say: drugs are bad. They are banned.

And then your position is fine. Should you peer down from your moral mountaintop and look at what is actually happening in the valleys, you will see carnage as a consequence of that policy, and your police forces and your judicial system and even your government being potentially corrupted in a case in just as in countries like Colombia, Afghanistan or Albania. These countries are almost in the hands of the people who own and run these very large drug businesses.

If you can't trust your police and you can't trust your governance and you can't trust your judges, you're in a really bad way. And the problem is, that these people have more money than they do so they can bribe people.

Do you think Mr. Johnson is the man to implement reforms, or do you think it's further down the line?

I would certainly hope so. But of course what we've got is a very highly charged area, and the critical thing is to proceed on the basis of the evidence.

And the evidence we have today is that after the prohibition of narcotic drugs in 1961, 60 years later, we have an outcome, which is utterly catastrophic. It might just be possible to do this a little better around the world! That's why you've got a global Commission on drug policy reform, with very many senior past presidents and leaders from around the world like Kofi Annan on it before he very sadly died or George Shultz the former American Secretary of State. People who actually think about what's at stake here are saying "well I think the emperor has no clothes!"

Of course we got driven to this place by the United States, who really lead the world on this prohibitionist model and designed the UN single convention in 1961, and you would have thought that having prohibited alcohol, a drug, in the 1920s, which was then an unmitigated disaster and created organised crime on an enormous scale in the United States and had people killing themselves as they drank industrial spirits, rather than a product produced under licence by a regulated by a regulated industry that they might have thought twice about taking the world on this little journey.

But the world's politicians and popular press wanted to parade their moral credentials that these things are bad, and therefore - they are banned.

I'm not an advocate for drug use. I'm an advocate of recognising reality and trying to manage this as best we can. And I would suggest that the evidence is that the criminal justice system is not a place to deal with drug use; the public health system is! You've got two extremes in terms of potential free market delivery of drugs. You've got one extreme where you go to Tesco and buy whatever you want.

And the other extreme is what we have now, which is a criminal supply chain that is highly efficient, highly organised and extremely well funded and can get probably drugs delivered to people in a city like London just as quick as you can get a pizza. So, there you've got two very efficient free market models where it might just be an idea to go into the middle ground, and regulate and control the market as best as ypu can in order to keep the supply out of the hands of criminals.

So then you have a regime of public health and standards of what people can use and strangely enough, most people, most of the time, as they do with alcohol will make intelligent decisions about the balance of risk and benefit in their drug consumption.

Then, if you are taking the tax revenue of a legal industry, an industry actually which then produces products to a higher standard which we're hugely proud of; a great Scotch whisky industry or wineries and breweries and the like that you have proper legal controls on. People, by and large, know what is in their glass of whiskey or glass of beer. You can also protect children... If you sell to children, you lose your business.

Is there something significant about the time we're living in now where Brexit has given an opportunity for quite wide scale reforms over different areas and sectors. Has it had a specific impact on potential drug reform?

Obviously we have the freedom to reinvent ourselves now. I've just come from the House of Commons chamber where there has been a wonderful statement by Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, about how we're going to go after human rights abusers with targeted sanctions. That's an enormous shift of direction and is actually something Dominic Raab was campaigning for as a backbencher for quite a long time so now the Foreign Secretary has been able to deliver it. But what that says, as a piece of substance, underneath the values of a pretty liberal entity in the world - values of supporting human rights, respecting the rule of law, particularly the international rule of law also goes towards a rational basis, towards looking at the international treaties that we are engaged with in this area and insisting that there has to be an evidence based approach to policy in his area.

Our drug policy is not working. Surely it is possible to do better, and I would hope that, as I'm absolutely certain that Boris, who is a rational social liberal and not an ideologue in any sense (and it's frankly it's ideologues that got us into bother on this) that we need to do this on the basis of rationality the evidence.

In terms of you specifically, in the drug reform debate, your greatest achievement, would be, I would assume, preventing the ban on poppers?

That was actually largely due to the actual work that was being done, quietly by Mike Freer, who was trying to gather the evidence and persuade the government quietly. That position got a bit trickier when, without very much reflection, and it wasn't an overly prepared speech, I was just really irritated by what was being proposed because it was just stupid. The Home Affairs select committee was against it, the Labour party was against it. It was all about the way the government was trying to chase after new drugs coming to the market by taking sweeping powers and then ended up catching poppers. So, I then outed myself as a poppers user, and to my surprise, find myself splashed over the front page of the Sun.

It was a very powerful, very powerful statement which leads on to my second question. If you look at the last leadership election you had Michael Gove who had admitted using cocaine and Rory Stewart who had allegedly used opium.

Yes, they all had in one form or another I think, except of course the Prime Minister, for whom it turned out to be caster sugar or something.

Do you think then, from the outside looking in, is there any potential hypocrisy there between people who in their personal lives seem to have used recreational drugs and then at the same time have been unwilling to engage with them in a political sense?

Well you can tell it rather mattered to me that poppers, which I was a user of, were going to be made illegal and of course one of the reasons I was confident stepping into this debate is I didn't have what David Cameron called a "normal university experience". I left school and two weeks later I was skidding around an icy parade square in Sandhurst. So, having anything to do with drugs was outside of my experience and it never became inside my experience because why would you put your entire career at risk in that way. And then, in trying to think through that, it's all very well for me to sit on my perch and go "oh I'm a goody little two shoes I've never done this" and realising that some horrifying percentage of my colleagues do not arrive in the House of Commons, in the same condition. And so what do they do? And what do they say when they're asked the question? They will be obviously terrified about being asked a question and there might have been someone who saw them doing whatever they were doing. Which is why Michael Gove got into that position because he had rehearsed an answer to what his recreational habits were and he was pretty certain that someone in the journalists community was going to go "yeah gotcha" and expose the hypocrisy.

The difficult thing to recognise is that our drugs laws are disobeyed by a large majority of the population and politicians are no different from the people they represent. So what should the answer be that a politician gives to that question because, if they answer, most politicians would disabled from getting into the state. And hence the safe place is at the top of the moral mountain - drugs are bad, they're banned.

Now, I think, people should accept the politicians personal drug use or lack of it as it is likely to reflect that of the general population, and they should avoid actually getting drawn into answering personal questions about it because you just drive the policymakers out of the conversation. They're too frightened to take part in it. And that's what's happened, we can't properly think about this. And so I think that it is probably necessary that we take a vow of silence of a personal vein, whatever it is, and actually deal with the substance of the issue. And don't let it get distracted by by questions about your own individual behaviour, because we'll discover, as I saw when I went to the Durham Union society a couple of years ago to debate this issue alongside the Chief Constable of Durham, he asked his audience of 300 freshers at Durham Union society attending the first debate of the academic year "how many of you have used illegal drugs''? 80% of them put their hand up! That's where society is. Our drugs law are routinely ignored and if your laws are routinely ignored, they're not working!

From an electoral standpoint, do you think it could potentially play a quite important part in securing the Tory party's future beyond a generation which seems to be straying to the left? Would it preserve the youth vote?

Well, maybe it would be rather more intelligent and understanding of the world as it is, and as the Tories that's what we ought to be doing. We're not meant to be a bunch of ideological revolutionaries trying to fashion a new world in a fundamental way, we should be proceeding on the basis of the evidence. And when a case for change has been made. We should then react appropriately and make the necessary changes. And it's obviously going to be difficult to get fundamental agreement, all at once about law reform but it is happening in practice, because the police don't have the resources to operationally enforce all of the law on every person who uses drugs in this country.

Obviously we've seen in the United States, the consequences of a rather more enthusiastic war on drugs. You've ended up with 2 million Americans in jail, and one in 11 of the adult black American population either in jail or under probation supervision. That's not a great place to be.

Within the US and I think to a certain extent Canada as well, there's obviously been a debate post legalisation about what happens to criminal records of those with petty drug related offences?

Well, what you certainly don't want is somebody's life being completely screwed up by having that as part of their record. And of course, that's the effect now on someone in the United Kingdom with a possession conviction. And it's one of the reasons why the police and prosecution authorities are actually quite reluctant to begin someone's road into crime by bringing a simple possession offence. And it's another reason why we need a proper rethink about the whole legal framework, but I'm afraid that question is some way down the track before we actually start making the case to change the laws themselves and to change the framework. And once that's done when you need to think about what one does about people's records..

So moving on then to Heroic Hearts, psychedelic therapy and PTSD. That's a conversation that gets much less airtime than the rest of the drug reform debate. Is that something that you became aware about later in your career or was that something you were aware about straight after leaving the military?

No, it's something I became aware of after I had become co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group in 2017, that opportunity arising because I lost the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I thought, what do I do now, and, almost by serendipity the day result of that election was announced, the government published the latest iteration of its drug strategy, and a few days later there was a debate on that strategy in the house the last day before we rose for summer recess in 2017. I spoke in that debate and I got a very positive response to the contribution I made, and having been prisons minister and having not had "the normal university experience", I actually felt this was a topic of massive importance. This was somewhere that I could actually bring something to this debate, and that's what I chose to do. And since, having tried to ally the All Party Parliamentary Policy Reform Group, with the resources of the financial investment going into the legal medical and recreational cannabis industry in Canada and elsewhere and the All Party Group not wanting to be associated with "filthy commerce". I thought this is a game changer - the development of medicine from cannabis, and the Canadian, Uruguayan and 12/13 American jurisdictions, who have produced different regulation licence conditions experiments across the pond give us the chance.

There is now a big commercial interest to get into public affairs space, and have a conversation where you can then begin to resource the research, to be able to become authoritative in the space. And so, what I decided to do is then make this one of my priorities, and try and put together a team, and so the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group came to be. It doesn't support the Conservative Party, its job is to persuade and opinion change on the centre right of the Conservative Party and to change the terms of debate. That can only be done by consistent authoritative delivery of evidence. Then, one of the pieces of work we then alighted on was this line of work on psychedelics, and that is entirely a product of the foundation of drug laws, so total prohibition. Because psychedelics were used by pop stars in the 60s, they found themselves stuck in the most restricted category, of all.

And so when the misuse of drugs act was passed in the UK in 1971, into schedule one went cannabis and the psychedelics! 50 years later and we are half a century behind in the science that underpins the actual pharmaceutical benefit that could come from these classes of drugs, because it's terribly difficult to do research on drugs that are in schedule one. And of course the association with schedule one is obviously so negative and it is monstrously difficult and expensive to get a license to do the research.

Well, guess what we didn't do the research because it's too expensive and too difficult... the consequence is that there are an awful lot of people with PTSD, but probably countless times more with depression, who might have been getting decent treatment 40 years ago if the science was done 50 years ago.

How important do you think is changing the public discourse about it? Obviously with marijuana, the public is fairly open to debate and discourse about it but that's probably not so with psychedelics?

It's certainly outside my experience I don't know what they do other than academically. I'm quite keen to find out under a legal jurisdiction! The research needs to be done, but the results that we've got are incredibly positive about the benefits for mental health.

If you could adopt one approach to reform, would it be the Portugal approach of just a blanket, lifting, or would it be much more incremental and study based first medicinal, and then recreational?

The work that is happening is, obviously happening different ways all over the place. Medicine from cannabis was, as the Californians had gone with in the late 1990s, basically a recreational market, a market that was pretending to be a medicine business.

Obviously what's known out there by the public is basically that if you have a condition like MS, people understood that cannabis had this remarkable effect on addressing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

So guess what, if you had MS and if you couldn't get the stuff from a criminal supplier there is no alternative so you grew it. And thus, there are 50,000 people relying on creating their own medicine. That makes them rather serious criminals under the law. It is a barking place for our policies to be if you criminalise people who are just simply trying to deal with a diagnosed medical condition!

And so there's a huge amount that needs to be made sense of and we are starting obviously in a medical cannabis area! It took the combination of Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell two little epileptic boys, to then to push the government over the line after Billy Caldwell's medicine had been declared and then confiscated at the customs border back from North America, then to a week later be fitting in hospital and be in danger of losing his life. So, the Home Secretary had no other humane choice but to return his meds. That meant a special licence and then we started thinking. We asked the chief medical officer "Was there any benefit in this thing", they took all of two weeks to come back and say "Yes".

I think this is at heart freedom with responsibility. As Conservatives, our central principle is to enable people to live life as they wish. At the same time you've then got to be responsible for the choices you make and the impact on others. This area is the same as with alcohol. If you decide to drink and then drive, then, quite rightly you're then endangering other people, and you will be facing serious criminal sanction. If you choose to enjoy alcohol, and you enjoy it within sensible bands, everybody is happier with the benefit of that social lubricant. Well, humanity has been trying for millennia to make oneself feel better. It would be, in the end, I think, better if people could do that on an informed basis in a regulated market. You can make everything illegal but regulations and licence conditions appropriately restrict the danger of the product.

And so, with very different things like heroin, you will want to have very restrictive conditions under which you can get it. Up until 1971, if you had a heroin habit you would go to your doctor and get a prescription for your heroin. So you could hold down your job. Keep your home. Look after your family, and you had access to the drug you'd managed to get yourself addicted to. We had 1049 registered heroin addicts in 1971... 20 years later, after we stopped that model which is called "the British Model", we had 350,000.

We had a drugs policy which created the most motivated pyramid sales force in history. The best way to fund your habit was selling stuff to four or five other people who would then sell to four or five other people and the people at the bottom of the pyramid, who couldn't sell to anybody, stole. That is now half of acquisitive crime in the UK.

I'm very motivated to work on the right policies, because the amount of good we can do if we get this right, is just off the scale.

For politicians, it's a very dangerous conversation to get into. I suppose once I decided this is what I wanted to dedicate the rest of my time in parliament to, I better make damn sure I succeed, because this is not a route to a promotion. However, one goes into politics, to try and make society better. If I and the wonderful people who work with me at the Conservative Drug Policy Reform group can move the dial even a tiny bit then we have done a huge amount of good.

Crispin Blunt will be speaking at the Drug Science Medical Psychedelics Working Group on Tuesday 14th July at 2pm - a free online event exploring these issues - https://drugscience.org.uk/launch-mpwg/

This interview with facilitated by the Conservative Drug Reform Policy Group

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