‘Anyone in this city can go and find people selling heroin, marijuana, crack cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and, like we’ve seen recently, spice,’ says MP Thangam Debbonaire.
The Government should consider allowing drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis to be sold over shop counters by licensed professionals in a regulated market, says a Bristol MP.
Thangam Debbonaire, the MP for Bristol West, took part in the making of an upcoming hard-hitting BBC documentary called Drugsland, which starts on Tuesday November 14 and investigated the city’s underground drug scene.
The experience, she revealed to the Bristol Post, has made her call for a rethink on the UK’s drugs policy.
Labour MP Ms Debbonaire said she would like to see a major overhaul considered in the way drugs are dealt with – both in terms of the possession of drugs and also their sale.
Firstly, she said those possessing drugs should be treated not as a criminals but, instead, should be sent on mandatory health and education programmes to help them get over their addiction.
Secondly, those who have purchased drugs should be able to get them tested to determine whether they are safe before taking them.
And finally, the former charity worker believes it is time for the Government to look seriously at regulating the sale of drugs, to ensure those who want to consume them can do so safely.
The MP said such a bold move could potentially reduce the risk of personal harm, take pressure off the police and help eradicate drug-related criminal behaviour.
Ms Debbonaire, who features in the fourth and final episode of Drugsland, airing on Tuesday December 5, said the decision to make drugs illegal had left the industry “in the hands of violent thugs”.
She is calling for an “evidence-based policy review” of the current drug strategy and has vowed to “make it a priority” for Government.
“I’m not saying, ‘Let’s have a free-for-all’. That would be dangerous and unregulated. Look at alcohol – that is legal but it is regulated,” said Ms Debbonaire, in an interview with the Post .
“Contrast that to what we have at the moment. We do have drugs shops – people don’t like to call them that, but that’s what we have.
“Anyone in this city can go and find people selling heroin, marijuana, crack cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and, like we’ve seen recently, spice.
“All of those are illegal, unregulated and put people at risk. But making drugs illegal does not stop people wanting to buy them.”
In the documentary, Bristol City Council’s substance misuse project officer, Jody Clark, acknowledges the city has a problem with heroin and “club drugs”.
Ms Debbonaire said, if regulation did come in, each drug should be treated individually. Some drugs, she explained, were regarded as less harmful than others, including ecstasy and marijuana.
Selling some class A drugs, tested by chemical experts and with warnings attached to them, would be safer than buying off backstreet dealers who have to provide no proof of what is in their product, the MP argued.
“With drugs like ecstasy, we could minimise the harm by reducing the risk involved by regulating the market in some way,” the Labour Party whip said.
“With ecstasy, if you could go into the equivalent of an off-licence or go into a shop where the person has to be licenced, inspected and regulated – and where there is information available to people to minimise the harm – then that would be a hell of a lot safer than what we have at the moment.”
Professor Fiona Measham, an expert at The Loop, a drugs testing organisation, notes in the documentary that ecstasy-related deaths had gone-up nationally.
In the UK, 63 people died of ecstasy last year – an eight-fold increase in the last seven-years – which her organisation put down to increasing strengths of MDMA in the pills.
The Loop would like to be able to put out warnings to drug users if a bad batch has been discovered – something currently not possible because drugs are classified as illegal.
A similar life-saving warning practise has proved successful in countries such as the Netherlands and Austria, said Prof Measham.
That one drug could be sold over a licenced shop counter was not to say every drug should be treated that way, said Ms Debbonaire.
She said she recognised that a different form of regulation, possibly worked-up by the medical profession, was need for more addictive drugs like heroin.
“I don’t think all drugs should be available on supermarket shelves, as if they were sweets. These are certainly not sweets – they can be very dangerous,” she added.
“We can see in other countries where legalisation has been graduated and gradual for some drugs – but not all drugs.
“I’m not saying that everything should be up for grabs. But at the moment we have an unregulated and an unhealthy market that is not helping people.”
Ms Debbonaire said her and a small number of Labour MPs, along with some politicians from other parties, were looking to combine forces during this Parliament to put drug policy reform on the Government’s agenda.
Speaking in the film, she told city drug specialists that the question of illegality was one of the key things she wanted to examine more closely.
The Government’s drug strategy, which was published in the summer, mentioned the need to provide better medical resources for those battling with drug addiction. However, it made no mention of decriminalising or regulating the sale of drugs.
In a debate on the strategy in July in the House of Commons, Ms Debbonaire questioned whether the Government had gone far enough in eradicating drug harm.
Dr Ben Sessa, a psychedelic drug researcher, was interviewed by Ms Debbonaire for the Drugsland film.
He said the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was still the same “as the day it was written 45 years ago”.
“I can’t think of any other socio-political policy that has not changed in 45 years. The Misuse of Drugs Act is completely unfit for purpose,” he said.
“The idea that if drugs were softened or regulated, that we would all be high all the time is just utter rubbish. There’s no evidence to suggest that at all.”
In 2004, the then Labour government reduced marijuana to a class C drug, removing the threat of arrest for possession. Five years later, after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, it was reverted back to class B.
The Home Affairs Committee, in 2012, recommended it be moved back to class C, deeming it less harmful.
Dr David Nutt – the ex-government drugs advisor who was sacked by Tony Blair’s Labour administration after saying taking ecstasy was statistically no more dangerous than riding a horse – also met Ms Debbonaire for the documentary.
He explained how, in Portugal, the government made possession of all drugs legal 15 years ago. In that time, heroin deaths have decreased by a third, with healthcare made available for those taking the drug.
In Britain, the heroin deaths have risen by a third since Portugal introduced its policy.
“That is because our policy is to punish rather than treat,” said Dr Nutt, a former Bristol University professor.
The four-part series Drugsland premiers on Tuesday night, with a new episode released online each week. It is also due to be aired on BBC One at a later, as yet to be confirmed, date.