‘As an MP for a city with such high levels of drug-related harm, it would be negligent of me not to ask whether we could be doing things differently,’ says Caroline Lucas. ‘As well as identifying the national policies that get in the way.’
A member of the Green Party since 1986, she became one of the party’s first MEPs in 1999 and was made party leader in 2008, before being elected the UK’s first ever Green MP – ‘a privilege’, she says – for the constituency of Brighton Pavilion in 2010.
She’s currently enthused about a Private Members’ Bill she’s about to present calling for the railways to be brought back into public hands as franchises expire – ‘potentially saving the Treasury more than a billion pounds a year’, she says – but she’s long been interested in drug policy as well, sparked by a sense of injustice at seeing people ‘pointlessly criminalised’ and by frustration at what she considers to be doomed policies. ‘On an intellectual level it’s clear that current policies are failing,’ she says. ‘But I’ve also seen first-hand the terrible effects that’s having.’
Brighton is famous for many things, but the grimmest was always the number of drug-related fatalities in the city, earning it an unenviable reputation as ‘drug-death capital of the UK’. Recent signs are encouraging, however. From 50 drug-related deaths in 2009, the number fell to 35 the following year, and, according to the Independent drugs commission for Brighton & Hove report from earlier this year, the indications are that ‘the trend is being continued through 2011 and 2012’.
Problem drug use is still clearly a major issue in the city, but does she think it’s fair to say that the situation is improving? ‘Levels of drug-related harm and deaths in Brighton and Hove are still worryingly high, but good progress is being made,’ she says. ‘In the last few years we’ve seen, for example, a 17 per cent increase in numbers of people leaving treatment successfully, compared to the 7 per cent national average.’
Some of these improvements can be attributed to ‘different approaches being taken locally, in particular through intelligent commissioning,’ she says. ‘And we are saving more lives thanks to initiatives like making naloxone more widely available.’
In terms of different approaches taken locally, while the Brighton and Hove drug commission’s report included 20 recommendations – among them increased training in naloxone administration, better data collection on drug use trends and improving services for those with a dual diagnosis – the one the national media inevitably seized on was the call to establish consumption rooms. Or rather, to quote the actual wording of the document, to ‘convene a working group to explore the feasibility of implementing a form of consumption room, targeting those who are hard to reach and not engaged in treatment, as part of the range of drug services in the city’.
Does she find that a frustration – are the press dictating the terms of the debate? ‘It would have been great for all of the drugs commission’s recommendations to have received the attention they deserved, but the press stories were always going to be about drug consumption rooms, and that at least put the report in the public eye,’ she states. ‘But I do think some of the popular press make it very difficult to have a nuanced debate about drugs policy. It’s clear that mainstream politicians won’t go near certain solutions – no matter how evidence-based they are – because they’re worried about the headlines in the Daily Mail.’
Nonetheless, decriminalisation is an increasingly mainstream topic of discussion in the media these days, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. ‘We’re not there yet – the immediate goal is the impact assessment,’ she says, referring to the call for a comprehensive review of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. According to the petition she’s created on the government’s e-petition website, ‘nobody is checking whether Britain’s current approach is value for money or money wasted’.
It’s primarily about ‘getting the government to at least acknowledge that current policy is flawed,’ she stresses. ‘However, I don’t think decriminalisation in the future is out of the question, by any means. Some societies that you might think of as socially conservative – Portugal and Switzerland, for example – have introduced decriminalisation, or other policies based on health not crime, and seen positive results. If you believe in evidence-based policy-making and want to reduce drug-related harm, this is the logical first step.’
She recently coordinated an open letter to the Times which, along with urging the government to agree to an independent review of the Act, exhorted the coalition to join ‘the global effort towards an alternative strategy based on evidence’. How confident is she that messages like that are going to be taken on board.
‘I’d like to think that there’s a point at which ministers have to change course, just because the evidence is so compelling,’ she states. ‘But it’s difficult to say when. Certainly we’re making the case very strongly, and in terms that should appeal to ministers – our arguments are all about reducing the harms caused by drug addiction and using taxpayers’ money more effectively.’
On that note, does she feel that moving drug and alcohol treatment to local authorities, overseen by Public Health England, was the right thing to do? ‘It’s vital that everyone gets the drug and alcohol treatment they need,’ she says. ‘I think this is undermined by the fragmentation of the NHS, and there’s a risk that services will be poorly integrated and people will fall between the gaps. I just hope that – as in Brighton and Hove – local authorities will continue to make drug and health services a priority.’
The UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26 June saw her donning a Richard Nixon mask outside the Houses of Parliament, as one of those protesting to ‘reclaim’ the date as part of the Support. Don’t Punish day of action. What made her decide to back the campaign?
‘Because the whole “war on drugs” approach is colossally damaging,’ she says. ‘It has meant the mass imprisonment of people who use drugs. It has allowed the international trade in illegal drugs to thrive. And, after decades, it has completely failed to reduce drug-related harm. Governments need to adopt approaches based on evidence, which deal with addiction as a health issue.’