Crispin Blunt MP Interview: “Evidence-based policy will always be conservative” | James Flanders

Traditionally drug liberalisation goes against the ideology of the Conservative Party, but MP, Crispin Blunt, has fought against this narrative throughout his career.

As a student, while planning to pursue a career in the military, Crispin Blunt MP would often see the initials ‘PBH’ on invitations to events. “It was commonplace to see the acronym PBAB below event invitations, which we know stood for ‘please bring a bottle’. But then I couldn’t work out what the acronym PBH meant,” said Blunt.

Blunt chuckled as he explained that after asking friends at university, it turned out it meant ‘please bring hash.’

Blunt has come a long way since those days. Today, as Reigate’s MP since 1997, he is the leading Tory voice in Parliament calling for reform of Britain’s drug laws. He has become the first Conservative MP to co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drug Policy Reform and Blunt set up the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group in January 2019 – publicly launched in June of the same year.

In 2010, Blunt separated from his wife after coming to terms with his homosexuality. Revelations of Blunt’s sexuality have left him at the forefront of the party in openly campaigning for the everyday rights of the LGBT community. A notable example following in the footsteps of his interests in drug reform include his admission to using poppers in 2016.

Asked if the decision to admit to using poppers recreationally was nerve-racking, Blunt said: “Actually, it wasn’t, it was a five- or six-minute speech in which I was encouraging colleagues across the house to support the reports of the Home Affairs Committee which recommended that poppers remain exempt from what’s now the Psychoactive Substances Act.”

“Although the amendment was voted down, the government u-turned on their position in March that year,” said Blunt after calling it a “stupid decision to criminalise them [poppers] in the first place.” 

Blunts decision to come out has caused controversy and at one point, he faced a campaign to block him from standing in the 2015 General Election. After defeating this campaign, Blunt reflected on the experience: “Coming out was hard and it wasn’t until two or three years after my separation in which I began to understand myself.”

The campaign against Blunt was in some ways propelled by a homophobic streak running through the Reigate Conservative Association’s executive council, with one member openly saying that Blunt’s announcement that he was gay “was the final straw.”

Looking back, Blunt said: “I don’t think any MP has had to face a vote of confidence in these circumstances and they certainly didn’t get the 85 per cent vote I ended up getting.”

His admission to using poppers was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to illustrating Blunt’s interest in the field of drugs legislation. But campaigning to reform UK drug laws was never on his mind in his early years of life.

Born in 1960 in Germany to Adrienne and Major-General Peter Blunt, Blunt said: “I was born in a British military hospital in the small town of Rinteln, where my father was stationed.”

Talking about his upbringing and education, Blunt described his early years at school: “I worked hard at school, I went to Wellington College and had my sights on training to join the army afterwards.”

When asked if Blunt became interested in drugs at this time, he said: “While it was around, I never touched the stuff, no matter what it was.

“Two weeks after leaving school, I was at Sandhurst starting officer training. So, the world of illegal drugs was not one I was overly familiar with and taking any at this point would almost certainly be career damaging. In between being commissioned as an Army Officer between 1979 and 1990, I studied politics at Durham University between 1981 and 1984.”

Blunt served in the Army up until 1990 when he resigned his position as a Captain to take on a new life in politics – a life which in his words “changed all his original perceptions on Britain’s relationship with drugs.”

After failing to gain the West Bromwich East seat in the 1992 General Election, Blunt became self-employed as a political consultant and later a special adviser to Malcolm Rifkind, who served as the Secretary of State for Defence and later, Foreign Secretary. 

After being elected in 1997, Blunt had stints in the Shadow Cabinet in his earlier years in opposition. But it was his posting as Minister for Prisons, Probation and Youth Justice in 2010 that opened his eyes to the failures of drug prohibition.

“My posting here and understanding of the justice system at this point is that it was largely overwhelmed by drug addiction and abuse. We had a very high reoffending rate. I think it stood at roughly 60 percent of those let out would re-offend in the year. And the majority of these offenders were involved with drugs in some way, whether that be through addiction and abuse, or an involvement within the illicit market to supply and sell drugs – essentially, it is hard to break this cycle. And dealing with this cycle is costly to the state,” said Blunt.

Citing Portugal’s experience in decriminalising all drugs, Blunt seemed frustrated as he tried to get across the point that if we continue to treat drug use as a criminal act, we won’t see falling use or levels of crime.

“It’s only when we treat drug use as a health harm, like in Portugal, will we see falling health implications, use and crime rates. You see, when that pyramid of suppliers and dealers is broken, the illicit market shrinks, as does crime – a policy which also saves the justice system money.”

The Reigate MP summed up these experiences by explaining that now was the time for him to “bring the debate on drugs into the mainstream, debates based on evidence and not prejudice.”

While many within the Conservative Party remain committed to its founding ideology and see drug liberalisation as un-conservative, Blunt argues against this notion:

“Actually, you’ll find that real conservative policy is evidence-based and if we’re to be the party that promotes individual liberty and freedom of choice, it’s important, we start recognising the failures of the ‘war on drugs’,” said Blunt hastily. 

“Conservatives aren’t a bunch of ideologues; we believe in evidence-based policy.”

With this view in mind, it comes as no surprise to see that Blunt became the first Conservative MP to Co-chair the APPG on Drug Policy Reform – a position he held between 2017 and 2019.

Following disagreements on funding the APPG, Blunt set up the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) in the same year.

“I had a disagreement with the other members of the APPG in the ways to promote investor funding. I wanted investors to help increase our research and PR capacity, but my left-wing colleagues didn’t want to do that, so I set up the CDPRG,” said Blunt.

Blunt now devotes a lot of his time to the group, made up of seven permanent staff. The CDPRG, in his words, “helps form a connection between scientists, researchers and policymakers to propose evidence-based policy on the legalisation of all drugs.”

Blunt left me with his prediction that recreational cannabis use within the UK will be decriminalised by the end of the decade. 

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