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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 24th January 2012

I wasn’t able to watch the live stream from the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) as it interviewed its first witness for its inquiry into government drug policy. Because that first witness was Virgin boss, Richard Branson, there has been plenty of media coverage before the event and there will be plenty after, I’m sure. That coverage will very much cherry pick the best sound bites so I’ll wait until I can read the full account or watch a recording of the whole session.

Yesterday, ahead of his appearance, Branson had an article published in the Daily Telegraph setting out his views on drug policy. That article, together with the announcement that he would be the first witness to appear before the HASC inquiry, provoked quite a lot of comment from all sections of the drug debate.

Researchers questioned whether he was sufficiently well informed to correctly articulate the reform argument whilst prohibitionists resorted to ad hominem attacks on Branson himself rather than engaging with the points made in the Telegraph.

I think it is important to look at the politics involved. It seems to me that UK parliamentary select committees are tending to become like US Congress committees. That is, they can be used as a platform for advancing the political careers of those politicians who serve on them and there is competition between different committees as to which are the more important. We saw this last year when the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee stole all the headlines by calling the Murdochs to give evidence on voicemail hacking although the HASC had conducted its own hearings on the affair.

The HASC obviously feels it has to get maximum publicity for its inquiry and realised that having a very well-known figure as its first witness was a way to achieve that. The coverage, yesterday and today, seems to justify that view.

Celebrity witnesses are not something new. When the HASC held an inquiry into the cocaine trade, in 2009, one of the witnesses was Mitch Winehouse, father of Amy. The views of one parent, concerned about his daughter’s habits, are hardly relevant to an investigation of an international trade but, as with Branson, the committee got plenty of publicity from its witness choice.

Branson’s Telegraph article, with its overly black and white statements about many of the issues, suggests that the HASC would be foolish to rely too heavily on his testimony when trying to decide what to put in its report but I don’t think it was wrong to call Branson. The raised profile of the inquiry may mean that, when the committee gets around to hearing from researchers and other experts in the field, that evidence will receive wider attention.

To the prohibitionists who attacked Branson on the basis of ‘What does he know about drugs?’ I would say that there is no need for someone to have spent all their live working in the field before they can take a view of drug policy. In fact, it seems possible that someone coming from outside will look at drug policy in the way they would look at any other topic; policy without the drugs takes away all the emotional baggage enabling a clearer view of the issue.

My own history is that I went from passively accepting the ‘drugs must be illegal because they’re bad’ argument to looking at drugs the way I looked at everything else, by taking nothing for granted and questioning all assumptions. That approach led me to the conclusion that current policy just does not work and there is the need for a sensible debate about how things could be improved.

It does seem, however, that supporters of the status quo are afraid of sensible debate and prefer to try and undermine the credibility of those seeking it.

I’m hoping to be able to watch or read the full session from the HASC, including evidence from Dame Ruth Runciman (Chair) and Roger Howard (Chief Executive), UK Drugs Policy Commission, during my train journey to Kent, tomorrow. Mind you, I’m also hoping to read a ‘Position Statement’ jointly prepared by a number of prohibitionist pressure groups and several other articles and papers plus making progress with ‘El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels’ by Ioan Grillo so I suspect the journey won’t be nearly long enough.

All of that, except the last, assumes I can master East Coast’s wi-fi service which I hope to use to post Wednesday’s blog entry on my return journey on Thursday.