Comedian, actor and former heroin addict, Russell Brand, has suggested politicians should regard drug addiction as a disease to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal or judicial matter.
The flamboyant film star, who arrived to give evidence to the Commons home affairs select committee, wearing a black hat, gold chains and crosses, and a torn black vest top, confirmed he had been arrested around a dozen times for drug possession.
He agreed it would be “a brilliant idea” if the policing costs of “nicking people for possession” were instead used to fund treatment and drug education programmes.
But Brand, who has given frank accounts of his battles to overcome heroin addiction, was careful to make clear he didn’t want to start “banging the drum” for legalisation. He said he didn’t feel qualified to talk about legalisation although he did think it was possible for some people to take drugs safely and he didn’t want to be identified with a “just say no campaign”.
He said he didn’t think that drug addicts cared about the legal status of the drugs they were taking, or where they came from or the consequences for those involved in their production.
“I don’t think they are going to be affected because they’re normally on drugs,” he said.
But he was keen to stress to the MPs, who are conducting an inquiry into drug policy, that he believed that an abstinence-based recovery approach was needed. “We don’t want to discard people by writing them off on methadone and leaving them on the sidelines,” he said, although he acknowledged the heroin substitute could play a role as part of a recovery programme.
He said rather than any carrot or stick approach he wanted to see “love and compassion” in society’s response. He said his own drug addiction had been caused by emotional and psychological difficulties and a spiritual malady. It was more important to tackle those than treating addicts as criminals, he added.
The rapidly spoken comedian tried to engage the MPs on the committee, chaired by the former Labour minister Keith Vaz, with some banter. When Vaz asked if he had been arrested “roughly” 12 times, he replied: “Yes, it was rough.”
When the veteran Labour MP, David Winnick, gently suggested he shouldn’t treat the committee as a variety show, he couldn’t resist pointing out that it seemed more like Dad’s Army to him.
When the MPs suggested that as a celebrity he could be a role model for young people, Brand responded: “Who cares about bloody celebrities? Their role is insignificant.” He said he wasn’t trying to get a message across to young people but to people with addiction and wanted to ensure that the response to them was based on “truth and authenticity”.
His backing for a more abstinence-based approach was supported by Chip Somers, the chief executive of the detox centre, Focus 12, where Brand went for help: “Just to park people on methadone for four to seven years is criminal.”
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