25 January 2004

The war on drugs: who calls the shots in the looming policy war: Blair, Blunkett or Johnson?

On Friday the 25th January the Independent, along with other papers, ran a news piece about some of the recommendations spilling out from the Forward Strategy Unit in Downing Street. One of the ideas to make the news was that a new offence of using drugs should be created and a conviction for use should act as a trigger either for enforced treatment or for imprisonment.

The news article was not new; rather it first ran in the Independent at the end of last year, under the banner "PMs drug report shifts focus to high harm users."

The ideas described in both articles have emerged from work coordinated by the Forward Strategy Unit; this Unit within 10 Downing Street is headed up by civil servant Geoff Mulgan, former head of DEMOS. Work is undertaken by a number of advisors, most famously John Birt.

The report prepared by the FSU concerning drugs has not been published, and is supposed to be a confidential document within Downing St. The 'Birt report on drugs' supposedly looks at a greater emphasis on enforced treatment, and looking at a regime that orders imprisonment or treatment for anyone testing positive for heroin. Other measures in the report are said to include increased monitoring of identified users through a register of addicts.

The measures proposed in the report are alarming and would result in many more people being unjustly targeted, criminalized or forced inappropriately in to prison. Yet the report is supposed to be the result of a year's research and presumably involved input from various 'experts' in the field.

Unfortunately, the report has not been published, so the researchers involved and the authorities consulted are, at present unknown. The research is, according to the Independent "too sensitive to publish," and Downing Street has described the research as a private piece of work.

The report, its contents and its status within Government throw up some intriguing questions.

Why, for example has this private report been cited, twice now, in the Independent. Given that the Indy ran it at the end of December, it suggests that it was intentionally leaked from Downing St or by someone within another department attempting to expose the proposals in the report.

The fact that the news story reappears again in the Indy this week is probably more to do with the Indy trying to tag an old story on to the current controversy surrounding cannabis. If it isn't it would perhaps suggest that parties unknown are leaking the story again, presumably also to fuel controversy around cannabis. Either way, the timing would seem to be either to distract from the Home Secretaries fumblings with cannabis, or to let the public know that he means to deal with other drugs robustly.

But more importantly, the issue of the report indicates deeper and more worrying concerns. Because all the indications are that three or four departments are now tugging in different directions when addressing drugs; instead of a joined-up strategy, different factions are fighting, presumably over both resources and profile.

The Home Office has been primus inter pares for a while now. While its status was somewhat reduced during the brief reign of the drugs czar, the mantle for drugs has been firmly taken back into the Home Office since Blunkett moved.

However, this position of pre-eminence is being gently eroded on several sides; the ODPM is taking a lead on some aspects, most notably efforts to move rough sleepers and other street populations into hostels and treatment. Given the associations between substance use and antisocial behaviour, the Antisocial Behaviour Unit, under Casey and Brady, is effectively directing a substantial swathe of drugs policy and money.

Similarly, the role of the Prime Minister's office (and the Forward Strategy Unit) suggests that Blair is interested in playing a more active role in directing drugs policy. The article in the Independent talks about Home Office sources expressing unhappiness about how policy is being shaped, and questioning the nature and reasons behind the PMs involvement.

The almost unheard voice in all this is that of Melanie Johnson. As the undersecretary in the Department of Health whose brief includes drugs, one would expect to hear more from her, nor her departmental boss John Reid.

Aside from a single written response regarding links between cannabis and schizphrenia, little can be found of her thoughts in Hansard. A better glimpse is provided in a newspaper report at the time when Blunkett was seeking to extend the Closure powers in the Antisocial Behaviour Act to cover class B and C drugs too. Johnson was quoted at the time as saying ""I have serious concerns about the possible impact that the extension of these powers to class B and C drugs may have, as suggested." Whilst hardly conclusive, it would suggest that she was sufficiently unhappy with the Home Secretaroes stance that she was prepared to disagree and do so publicly.

Unfortunately it is very clear at this stage that the Home Office, the ODPM and the Prime Ministers office are taking a lead and also perhaps wrangling for the upper hand somewhat. In the meantime, the DoH, who should be taking a strategic lead, are left languishing. And as it does so the health agenda is still further subsumed by the other three Departments.

This situation will only get worse as the General Election draws closer. The latest that this could be is June 2006. But if this an earlier date was preferred, then key policy areas like drugs will become a political battle ground. A contest for the drugs vote is not likely to offer many favours to harm reductionists or policy reformers. And if the ground is to be fought out between Blunkett and Michael Howard, we should be very worried indeed.

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