Opinion: that Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform poll

A poll conducted by LDDPR last month got some positive exposure last week with a mention in Antonia Senior’s opinion piece in thursday’s Times “Over to you: Tell me why drugs must stay illegal.” It was also referred to at greater length in Mark Easton’s excellent blogpost “Drugs Policy: The British System” the day before.

I feel it is important for the results of this poll to be explored further as some of the implications are profoundly important for the progress of the debate on drugs policy in this country and beyond.

Almost all polls conducted prior to the one we commissioned last month were variations on the “Do you think drugs should be legalised?” theme. This is despite the fact that the serious drug policy reform advocates in the UK (Groups like Transform and Release for example) are calling for “government control and regulation”, not “legalisation”, a word that likely conjures up impressions of a sudden moral sanctioning of drug use, or an abrupt halt to policing of the trade without the introduction of sensible regulation.

To address this failure of polling, LDDPR commissioned a poll which asked which of three regulatory options participants would find most tolerable for a number of different drugs. The options were; light regulation; strict government control and regulation; and prohibition (explanatory descriptions of these regulatory options were also provided and can be found here).

Rather than finding that 35% of Britons support legalisation of cannabis (as was reported following an Angus Reid poll in January), the LDDPR poll conducted through the same company found that 70% supported either light or strict regulation of the drug, with the figure for light regulation being remarkably similar to those for “legalisation” in the earlier poll at 33%. It’s quite possible that poll participants up until now have been rejecting “legalisation” for the same reasons they reject “light regulation” and have been presumed to be rejecting reform only because the most likely reform options haven’t been presented to them either by politicians or by pollsters.

If politicians are reluctant to discuss drug policy due to their fear of public perception of the issue, and their beliefs about public perception come from “legalisation” polls, then it could be argued that pollsters have failed politicians and the general public on a massive scale.

Further analysis of the figures on cannabis continues to create a picture completely at odds to what we have been led to believe. The demographic groups most likely to favour light regulation could well be described as the usual suspects: (relative to the overall 33%) Londoners (40%); Liberal Democrats (38%); Guardian/Indy readers (43%); 18-34 year-old males (39%). Those least likely to support it again you could predict: Express/Mail readers (25%); 35-54 year-old females (27%).

When you look at the groups favouring strict control and regulation though, you can’t help but imagine politicians around the country slapping their foreheads with their palms as they realise they’ve been stupid cowards for all these years: (relative to the overall 37%) Express/Mail readers (41%); 35-54 year-old Females (46%).

Yes it’s true. 66% of Daily Mail/Express readers would prefer cannabis were legal and regulated. 67% of Conservative voters think the same. The single group most likely to favour the strict legal control and regulation of cannabis is the group likely to contain the most mothers of teenage children. This is not a policy for stoners and irresponsible libertarians. It is a policy with broad appeal that might just find its most vigorous supporters amongst the nation’s concerned parents.

They know their kids can get hold of cannabis whether it is prohibited or not. They probably like the idea of young people trying to buy cannabis having to prove their age to the vendor. They might even be yet more enthusiastically supportive if politicians explained the numerous other benefits of regulation that couldn’t be described in the text of the poll. I suspect the more factual information is provided in a poll such as this, the greater the bias in favour or reform. There certainly aren’t many facts that support the status quo.

Antonia Senior in her comment piece calls for “laissez-faire legalisation, which would see drugs commoditised, marketed and taxed like any other product.” I’m slightly bemused as to why we should move from a system that is neither popular nor effective in reducing harm, to a system (presumably similar to the light regulation option in the LDDPR poll) that is neither popular nor likely to be effective in reducing harm. I would however welcome the debate shifting from legalisation vs. prohibition to one over how we replace prohibition with a system of regulation which best safeguards the mental and physical health of the population.

I previously have been dismayed by the shameful populism displayed by politicians on drug policy issues. In light of this poll, I look forward to the politicians adopting and vigorously defending the truly populist stance in proposing the strict government control and regulation of cannabis.

Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform will be hosting a fringe event: “It’s time we talked about drugs policy” in which speakers from Transform and Release and myself will discuss current drug policy failings and our hopes for the future. The event will take place in Hall 1B of the ACC on Sunday the 19th at 8pm and will be chaired by Julian Huppert MP.

LDDPR will also be drafting a topical motion in response to several drug policy stories that have been covered in the national media in the last week or two.

If you wish to get involved in drafting the motion or be contacted when it is finished and looking for supporters please get in touch with me at [email protected]. I can also provide the full excel file of the LDDPR poll results for those who are interested.

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19 Comments

  • Good stuff. The time is right for this now. With the LDs in coalition, many will be happy for some clear yellow water issues, and this will obviously be one.

  • Sophie Bridger 27th Aug '10 - 1:39pm

    Really interesting to see those statistics. Surely now is the time to thoroughly debate this issue?

  • Ewan, the synopsis for your ACT group include the stark phrase, ‘Drugs are harmful.’ You yourself seem to have bought into the ludicrous tabloid oversimplification of the issue. Many soft drugs, when used responsibly, could not reasonably be described as ‘harmful’.

  • Agree with Niklas. I think your statement that ‘drugs are harmful’ is just factually incorrect, Ewan, whether you ‘take that position’ or not. 🙂

  • Liberal Eye 27th Aug '10 - 4:10pm

    Thanks for highlighting what the public really thinks about drugs policy. The shallow populism, lack of leadership and lack of insight displayed by politicians of all stripes is indeed shocking. It is high time that the failed prohibition approach was abandoned in favour of one that understands addiction as sickness.

    But I don’t think that this means that we should make drug a regulated market like other more ‘normal’ products. Alcohol and tobacco show what damage results when the profit motive is harnessed in markets we should aim to see as small as possible. I therefore believe that the supply of drugs should be a government monopoly with criminal sanctions continuing for anyone supplying drugs privately and especially severe sanctions for anyone recruiting a new user.

    Nor should the government seek to profit from drugs as is sometimes suggested, not even if it comes to operate a monopoly. Although criminals make vast profits from drugs the government’s business is harm reduction – not cashing in on a profitable market. This would be to confuse the approach with the ‘sin taxes’ conventionally levelled on alcohol and tobacco.

    We also need to consider what measures are appropriate to protect the publci from drug-drivers etc. Possibly addicts should carry a card at all times and be required to produce them on demand for instance following an road accident.

  • @Ewan Hoyle
    This poll is a powerful tool in encouraging are more evidenced-based approach to drug policy and I hope that your fringe event, which I will attend, will help put steel in the backs of some of our elected representatives to start a national debate.

    Personally, I suggest strict regulation is the answer, but am not sure if some drugs should remain prohibited. If our argument is a libertarian one, then it doesn’t matter if the drugs are potentially lethal, it’s an individuals right to do with their body as they wish. If the argument is utilitarian, the possibility of prohibiting some drugs remains.

  • Steve Rolles 27th Aug '10 - 9:20pm

    id say its better to describe drugs as ‘risky’ – The level of risk depends on the drug/preparation, the user, the using behaviour and using environment. Risk describes a probability of harm that can be high or low in relative terms. Harm describes a realisation of risk probability to an idividual or population.

    The argument is that regulation would reduce risk to individuals – and thus harm when translated into populations.

    Great work with the poll Ewan. I think it warrants some follow up research.

  • Not all drugs are harmful. Take cannabis, for example: without it the quality of life for thousands of people with MS would be much worse and there’s no harm in enjoying a better quality of life. Just think how much better everyone’s quality of life would be if people who could use cannabis to enjoy a better quality of life could actually use cannabis to enjoy a better quality of life. Everyone would then enjoy a better quality of life, even those whose quality of life doesn’t seem much better for being able to use cannabis, because they would be surrounded by people who can use cannabis and enjoy a better quality of life. Where’s the harm in that?

  • I generally prefer a more liberal drugs policy, based more on evidence of actual harm being done to a person by the drug in question. Cannabis is a generally safe drug that shouldn’t be banned according to the opinions of a lot of experts, but I can’t see the argument for legalizing crystal meth. As long as we’re stuck between some puritan war on drugs mindset imported from the US and a legalize it all individualist option we’re going nowhere though. I applaud the LDDPR’s attempts to inject (ahem) the debate with at least a little more granularity.

  • Poll now available in poster form here: http://twitpic.com/4z8bmt

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