Facing a general election five months from now, embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tuesday took the opportunity of the annual Queen's Speech to unveil a "tough on crime" drug bill as a centerpiece of his pre-election legislative program. According to British press reports, Blair personally intervened to ensure that the drug bill is one of five measures to be given priority in the coming session of parliament.
The Blair drug bill would give police new powers to conduct compulsory drug tests on people arrested for minor crimes and would allow for them to be arrested and prosecuted on drug possession charges if they test positive. The bill foresees a rapid expansion in drug treatment capacity to deal with the expected influx of people ordered into treatment after being charged with "internal possession." It would also expand laws that allow the closure of crack dens as public nuisances to allow public housing councils to evict tenants who allow even casual drug use to take place on the property.
The bill targets some 200,000 "high-harm" drug users and street dealers, who the government believes are responsible for the bulk of drug-related crime. If adopted, the bill would double the number of police station drug tests to nearly half a million each year.
Coming the same week as reports that arrests for cannabis consumption have jumped markedly since the herb was reclassified last year as a less serious drug and arrests became optional for police, the Blair drug bill appears to signal a reversal of pro-drug reform policies and attitudes, at least in the Labor Party's campaign strategy.
While the drug bill has the support of Prime Minister Blair and his political advisors, who reportedly see it as key to playing on British voters' concerns about crime and "anti-social behavior," it is being attacked by drug reformers, police officials, public health specialists, opposition politicians, and even some members of the Blair team.
"The government has demonstrated a firm commitment to tackling drug abuse, but drug policy needs to be driven by a public health and social welfare agenda and not just crime," said Martin Barnes, chief executive of the reform group DrugScope (http://www.drugscope.org.uk). "We do not support a further extension of drug testing at this time. There is a need to first improve existing arrest referral and drug treatment programs with a greater emphasis on accessing treatment voluntarily and on after-care services upon completion to keep people off drugs."
Barnes was equally critical of the proposed "internal possession" law. "DrugScope is very concerned to hear of reports that the Government is considering extending the laws on possession to include the presence of drugs in the blood. Making the presence of drugs in the body will criminalize more drug users and would risk driving drug abuse further underground. The last thing we would want to see is people not accessing treatment or schemes such as needle exchanges for the fear of arrest," he said.
If anything, the reform group Transform (http://www.transform.org.uk) was even more critical. "The drug bill announced in the Queen's Speech is an enormously retrograde step," Transform chief executive Danny Kushlick told DRCNet. "It is the illogical conclusion of prohibition's overwhelming propensity to stimulate property crime, and it is the crudest of attempts to force heroin and crack users into treatment by making their drug use an offense. Imagine if we forced alcohol, prescription tranquilizer, or tobacco addicts into 'treatment.' There would be a huge public outcry," he said.
A bill mandating coerced drug treatment would be unnecessary if the government made treatment available on demand instead of trying to impose abstinence on drug users, Kushlick said. "If it were treatment, it would be overseen by Department of Health and its focus would be on health and well-being, not crime reduction. What is intended here is coerced abstinence. If a variety of effective treatment modalities were made available on a voluntary basis, there would be no need for coercion."
Kushlick called the proposed bill "a conjuring act" that would fail because it fails to address the underlying causes of crime and drug abuse. The bill is not favored by those who deal directly with the problem, he said. "It has no support in the drugs field, amongst police officers, backbench MPs, or even the Home Office," he said. "Let us hope that it is pre-election flag-waving to pander to the law and order lobby. We have enough on our hands campaigning for alternatives to prohibition without needing to respond to new draconian legislation."
The Blair drug bill is "ludicrous," Lord Victor Adebowale, head of the social welfare organization Turning Point, told the Daily Mirror on Monday. "We need to focus on making current treatment programs more effective, not dreaming up new offences to shovel people into the system," Adebowale said. "Instead, we see both the Conservative and Labor parties in a pre-election pantomime trying to prove who's toughest on drugs. It flies in the face of the evidence. The key is that you punish the crime and treat the addiction -- that distinction is starting to be lost through the war on drugs. Now we're talking about punishing for having drugs in the bloodstream."
British business interests are also critical of the bill. Former Confederation of British Industry head Adair Turner told the Mirror that rather than launching "unwinnable wars," it is time to end drug prohibition.
Labor MP Paul Flynn, a staunch supporter of ending drug prohibition, told the Mirror hard drugs should be made available by prescription. "A benign drug policy must follow the failure of prohibition," he said.
Criticism is even coming from within Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence. According to the Mirror, Blair aides in his Strategy Unit warned him in a secret report that the drug war is being lost and that a new crackdown will have no effect on crime rates. Instead, the Strategy Unit advisors said, cracking down on street sellers and users would only increase prices and cause crime rates to go up. "Heroin should be prescribed," they said.
But if the Blair drug bill is a step backward, it could have been worse. According to the Mirror, several Blair "big thinkers" recommended breaking the confidentiality agreements between drug users and social workers to allow them to pass information to police, allowing them to arrest more users.
"There were some seriously punitive ideas flying around among the blue skies thinkers which would not end up getting people into treatment," a "senior source" told the Mirror. "The Home Secretary and the PM are absolutely at one on this in that they want everything that is done to be linked to treatment. There is no point criminalizing people if you are not locking it into treatment. Otherwise we're back to the revolving door syndrome."
And while the bill was announced in time to allow Blair to claim his "tough on crime" credentials for the election, it will not be introduced to parliament until after the election. Home Secretary David Blunkett told reporters Tuesday he will wait for the elections. "It is not my intention to try and push a bill through this side of the general election, whenever the prime minister calls it," he said.
That means opponents of this backward step will have some time to try to kill it.