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Legalising drugs would be the perfect Tory policy

A few weeks ago I had a coffee with one of the most admired Tory thinkers. A radical libertarian, he spent his time railing against the interventions of Europe and inadequacies of government, arguing how they combined to infringe basic freedoms. Given the stridency of his views and hostility to the state, I asked if he supported the legalisation of drugs. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s totally different. It’s just wrong.”

cannabis law uk britain british growersI enjoyed listening to his tortured arguments as he sought to justify why the state he had just been decrying should stop millions of people enjoying themselves. But the question was far from facetious. As the illegality of drugs looks dafter and more disastrous by the day, the Tories should follow the lead of some Republican cousins in the United States and start fighting for reform.

This might sound strange. It was, after all, a Republican president in Richard Nixon who launched the ludicrous war on drugs to shore up his support. Yet there has always been a free-thinking strand of the American right that opposed prohibition on principle, while it was two Democratic presidents, in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who admitted using drugs yet hypocritically ramped up spending on enforcement.

Reformers on the right have been boosted by three recent events: the emergence of a conservative campaign for saner penal policies in a nation locking up a quarter of the world’s prisoners; the post-election inquest causing smarter Republicans to cast around for new ways to connect with young and minority voters; and landmark referendums in November voting to legalise marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

Liberalisation is moving from the libertarian fringes towards the mainstream. This is unsurprising when a city like Baltimore ends up arresting one in six citizens in a single year alone. Polls are shifting in favour of legalising cannabis, especially among the young, while there is growing acknowledgment of the racist undertones to the war on drugs, with disproportionate numbers of African-Americans jailed.

As the blogger Andrew Sullivan noted, the successful referendum campaigns rebranded reform as a conservative measure. It was not hippies demanding the right to smoke their spliffs, but parents concerned about their children. They demonstrated how drug legalisation, as well as being right and long overdue, is an issue that should appeal to Conservatives here if only they could shake off fear of public opprobrium.

It is offensive to see people criminalised and imprisoned for using stimulants many politicians admit to having used, especially when countless experts and ceaseless inquiries found drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy less harmful than alcohol. It is one more reason for the disconnect between politicians and the people who put them in power. Yet the concept of legalising drugs is caricatured by opponents as pushing the idea of having drugs on sale everywhere – as if they are not already.

By Ian Birrell    
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