Nick Clegg has accused the home secretary, Theresa May, of attempting to delete sentences from a Whitehall report after it concluded that there was no link between tough laws and the levels of illegal drug use.
The former deputy prime minister also said senior Conservatives, such as David Cameron and George Osborne, have failed to act on drug reform because they saw the issue as a “naughty recreational secret” at Notting Hill dinner parties instead of a public health crisis.
The Liberal Democrat MP and former party leader, who sits on the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, called for sweeping changes that would take the control of cannabis out of the hands of criminals, and also ensure that the users of harder drugs receive health treatment rather than jail sentences.
When the prime minister first became an MP he appeared open-minded to drug reform, but Clegg said he showed no interest in the issue when the pair worked together during the previous coalition government.
“If you are asking if I saw any evidence that David Cameron was prepared to grapple with this – none,” said Clegg, claiming he came up against the same lack of interest from the chancellor, George Osborne.
“I think part of the problem is that for some of them when you say drugs to them, they think of Notting Hill dinner parties. They think it is all a slightly naughty recreational secret. They don’t think of whole countries, like Colombia that has been brought to its knees. They don’t think of some very unscrupulous criminal gangs who are preying on people who we should be protecting rather than chucking in jail.”
A Conservative source described the intervention as a “desperate attempt by Nick Clegg to make himself relevant” after the Lib Dems’ poor election results.
Clegg, who sits on the commission alongside the former UN general secretary, Kofi Annan, and the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, also hit out at the home secretary. Speaking before he travels to New York for a special session of the UN on new approaches to tackle the issue, the former deputy prime minister described May as “spectacularly unimaginative” on the issue.
He claimed that the home secretary and her aides tried to alter a 2014 study before publication because “they didn’t like the conclusions”.
The Home Office report’s finding that there was “no obvious” relationship between a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and levels of consumption triggered calls for a fresh debate over decriminalisation.
It concluded that the factors driving drug use were complex, but did cite “considerable” health improvements in Portugal since the decision to treat possession as a health issue rather than a criminal one.
Clegg said the original draft had been subject to an “endless wrangle between Lib Dem ministers and Theresa May about the fullness of what would be published”, arguing that there would be no change whatsoever as long as she led the Home Office.
A Home Office spokesperson said the UK’s approach to drugs was to prevent use and help individuals recover, while also enforcing laws: “We have seen a reduction in drug misuse among adults and young people over the last 10 years and more people are recovering from their dependency now than in 2009-10. Decriminalising drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by their illicit trade, nor would it address the harms and destruction associated with drug dependence.
The spokesperson also rejected the idea that the report, known as the International Comparators Study, said there was no link between tough penalties and drug use. They said: “It makes clear that approaches to drugs legislation and enforcement of drugs possession are only one element of a complex set of factors that affect drugs use, including prevention, treatment and wider social and cultural factors.”
Clegg insisted that he was not soft on crime. “I don’t come at this with some uber-libertarian approach,” said Clegg. “I am a dad, I don’t want my kids taking drugs, drugs are bad for people. I just think the war on drugs has been proven to be a stupid way of reducing harm.”
He said he shared the objectives of a lot of people who wanted tough anti-drug laws, saying it was terrible that one in five young people tried illegal drugs last year.
“Alcohol is bad for you. Drugs are bad. Tobacco is bad. You don’t reduce the harm by placing the whole industry into the hands of criminals. Since when has industrial scale criminality been the answer to a public health problem?”
Critics point to links between cannabis use and psychosis, which last week led to calls for global public health campaigns from experts who said young people were particularly vulnerable.
Clegg said he believed there was a link to the use of skunk, a particularly toxic form of cannabis, but he argued that it was flooding the market precisely because of prohibition.
“When alcohol was prohibited in the US, the bootleggers didn’t bootleg beer, they bootlegged the hardest stuff, and it is exactly the same with drugs. If you put the production of drugs into the hands of criminals, guess what they will do? They will peddle the most potent stuff for the fattest profits.”
He said he was not optimistic about this week’s UN session driving a new international approach because of resistance from Russia and countries in Asia. However, he claimed there was a revolution unfolding in “state after state in the United States, in Uruguay, the Czech Republic and Portugal”.
The prime minister has expressed support for a different approach to drugs in the past, when as part of the home affairs select committee he signed up to a 2002 report claiming that policies based mainly on enforcement were destined to fail.
Then MP for Witney, Cameron wrote a piece for the Guardian, in which he said the drugs report was the most interesting and satisfying achievement of his first year as an MP. “Drugs policy has been a no-go area for most politicians, with a few notable – and brave – exceptions,” he wrote, calling himself an instinctive libertarian on the issue.
Cameron said decriminalisation would leader to greater availability, but added: “Authoritarians have to accept that the world has changed and hounding hundreds of thousands – indeed millions – of young people with harsh criminal penalties is no longer practical or desirable.”
In his interview, Clegg said that some Conservatives were quite thoughtful about the issue in 2010, when the coalition was formed, but that stopped after they became “freaked out” by Ukip.
“Over the five years I saw a Conservative party move from a party that was still in the after-glow of huskies and rose gardens; a party that flirted for a moment with being a modern Conservative party. But very quickly the shutters came up and they felt the route to government was to return to signature tunes on immigration and clearly on Europe and crime and so on. Taking a thoughtful approach on drugs didn’t fit into that.”
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