Decriminalising drug possession: an idea whose time has come?

Drug reform has long been the third rail of British politics. Nine years ago, a newly-elected Tory MP was able to write in The Guardian from the safety of backbench obscurity: ‘I am an instinctive libertarian who abhors state prohibitions and tends to be sceptical of most government action, whether targeted against drug use or anything else.’ It’s hard to imagine David Cameron daring to repeat those words now he occupies Number 10.

Yet the Lib Dems are preparing to move the debate centre-stage by recommending at this year’s autumn federal conference the setting up of an independent inquiry into the decriminalisation of possession of all drugs. The Guardian reports:

Senior Liberal Democrats believe Cameron and the home secretary, Theresa May, could be persuaded to hold an open-minded inquiry into a controversy which divides public, political and medical opinion. The inquiry, the Liberal Democrats said, would look at reforms in Portugal which are said to have reduced problematic drug use through decriminalisation for personal use and investing in treatment centres. The conference motion also calls for the inquiry to “examine heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland and the Netherlands which have delivered great health benefits for addicts and considerable reductions in drug-related crime”. … The call for the inquiry serves a wider purpose for the Liberal Democrats who need to restore their radical credentials with younger voters alienated by the party’s support for trebling of tuition fees.

The motion states: “Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and a drug habit and that the priority for those addicted to all substances must be health, education and rehabilitation”. The motion also claims the proposal might also produce financial savings to stressed budgets in the Ministry of Justice and act as a return to evidence based policy in the field of drugs, a stance the Liberal Democrats claim Labour rejected by its persistent refusal to take on board official scientific advice to government.

Proposals for drug reform expose divisions within parties at least as much as between them: social liberals are pitched against social conservatives. Suddenly the most anti-government, Tea Party-ist free-marketeer believes state prohibition is vital to stop society going to hell in a handcart. It’s an irony the Economist noted earlier this year:

Drug abuse is driven to a significant extent by fashion. If there’s one thing government has going for it, it’s the ability to make anything unfashionable. This insight into government’s jujitsu-like capability to render the cool uncool should be more obvious to conservatives than to liberals.

The Portgual experiment

The same Economist post points to an article in the Boston Globe highlighting the documented success of Portugal’s drugs policy:

… nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. … new research, published in the British Journal of Criminology, documents just how much things have changed in Portugal. Coauthors Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens report a 63 percent increase in the number of Portuguese drug users in treatment and, shortly after the reforms took hold, a 499 percent increase in the amount of drugs seized — indications, the authors argue, that police officers, freed up from focusing on small-time possession, have been able to target big-time traffickers while drug addicts, no longer in danger of going to prison, have been able to get the help they need. …

Such an ptimistic conclusion is not accepted unanimously, however:

Not everyone agrees with this analysis. The rate of people reporting drug use in Portugal is, in fact, increasing — and some say alarmingly so. Others argue that it’s hard to draw lessons from Portugal’s experiment because the nation increased access to treatment at the same time it decriminalized drugs. Many believe that Portugal’s new focus on treatment — and prevention — may have had as much, if not more, to do with its success than its policy of decriminalization.

What does the public think?

Politicians’ disinclination to look seriously at the issue isn’t perhaps surprising given public attitudes tend towards being socially conservative and anti-reform. In November 2008, the Observer and ICM undertook a major polling exercise on opinion among the public to drugs, and their findings showed:

  • By 73% to 27% the public was against curently legal drugs being legalised/decriminalised;
  • 63% agreed possessions should always result in a jail sentence; and
  • 62% were opposed to decriminalising possession even with the supply of drugs remaining a criminal offence.

The statistics highlight the uphill struggle that remains for drug policy reformers in persuading the public (and by extension the government) that relaxing the laws will prove more effective than continuing to pursue the doomed-to-fail war on drugs.

But that is the role of political leaders: not to follow public opinion, but to shape it. It’s a welcome move that the Lib Dems are pushing policy in a progressive direction. The question is: can we persuade the Conservative part of the Coalition, or indeed the conservative part of Labour, to back the party’s stance?

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  • Daniel Henry 6th Aug '11 - 12:51pm

    @ Niklas
    Agreed – decriminalisation seems to be the weak compromise towards full legalisation that involves all the downfalls (removal of deterrent) without most of the benefts (taking business from gangs, safe regulated products and tax revenues)

    The way I see it, full legalisation is too radical a change for the public to accept. I think that decriminalisation could be put forward as a trial approach of “ignoring small users to concentrate on the big fish”, being shown as a relatively small change that could be reversed if it all went wrong. Then, once decriminalisation had been tried, tested and accepted, the main argument against legalisation would have been neutered and it would be easier to press forward with a full legalisation with the full benefits.

    On another note, what a brilliant Guardian article by David Cameron.
    Non-partisan, open minded and but still level headed.

  • A good article Stephen, and I had never seen that David Cameron piece before. The sentiments expressed within it are very encouraging.

    I must reiterate the point Niklas makes about the polling you quote though. I’m not saying the poll you quote is out of date, rather that the poll methodology is severely flawed. With a policy area this complex (and it is complex) more complex polling needs to be employed to gauge public opinion on potential policies, rather than just measure individuals prejudiced reactions to words like legalisation and decriminalisation.

    The LDDPR poll from last year went into much greater detail describing how drugs could be regulated and found 70% support for legal regulation of cannabis vs. 25% support for continued prohibition. I’ve put together a poster which presents the poll wording results clearly and can be found here:

    There has also been a fascinating poll done more recently that can be found here and that is very interesting to the decriminalisation aspect of the debate:

    It asked 2 different decriminalisation questions:

    The first asked:
    “Which, if any, of the following drugs do you think should be decriminalised (i.e. stop the possession and use of drugs being crimes but leave in place the potential for penalties; for example a monetary fine in place of a criminal
    charge for the possession of a decriminalized drug)”

    45% said none of the above with 19% saying they didn’t know.

    The second question asked:
    “Suppose people use illegal drugs but have not committed any other crime. In general, should such people be treated as criminals and brought before the courts, or should they be treated as people who may need medical treatment and other forms of support?”

    For this question 30% said they should be treated as criminals, 62% said they should be treated as people in need of treatment or support.

    These are both questions on the decriminalisation of drugs but yet they yield wildly different representations of public opinion.

    What does this tell us? I think it either tells us we have to commission a much better drug policy poll, or it tells us that the only way we’re going to find out how people feel about the issue is to go ahead and adopt a better policy and try to explain to people as best we can why we are going down that route. All the evidence from Switzerland and Portugal suggests that political parties and the population are approving of policies that demonstrably improve people’s health and their safety.

  • Why not ask Cameron to stand by his comments. Why do the LD not propose a bill in the commons and ask for the PM support – or was he just pretending?

    We, me included, are very quick to criticize Labour politicians for jettisoning their principles – why not see if the Tories are any different?

  • I am in favour of the wholesale legalisation of drugs-use , as the best way of removing at a stroke the financial engine which drives the drugs trade producing coercion, bribery , robbery, adulteration, rape, family break-up, murder, riot and finally war.

    I do not believe the weary argument that such a step would create millions more addicts overnight, because I believe it is the illegality which attracts many of them in the first place. Legalisation should be tried cautiously first, to test whether the argument proves to be true in practice, and not rejected out of hand.

    I don’t think this argument will be opposed by the medical profession. But it will be opposed by the Police and the Judiciary, for the simple reason that the present situation provides them both with ever-increasing, unreachable targets and huge public expenditure to match , resulting in gargantuan police overtime and fat barristers’ fees.

  • After the coalition caused me to withdraw my support from the Lib Dems in the Scottish Elections something like a clear commitment to legalise drugs like cannabis and sell them in off licenses with more harmful drugs like heroin being treated via the NHS is one of the few things that could win my support back.

    Prohibition has caused far more harm than good, people need to be free to use drugs like cannabis if they want to, and serious drug addiction is primarily a medical problem, not a criminal one. To treat heroin addiction as a criminal problem only makes it worse. It was a mistake to stop heroin prescription in the 1970’s and the result is criminal drug pushers have made over 1% of Scottish adults into heroin addicts which has fuelled crime and cost the country billions of pounds in lost productivity and prison costs since then. And it’s failed to the point where they can’t even keep drugs out of prison, let alone out of society.

    So will I ever vote Lib Dem again? I doubt it. Why? Because I don’t think the party leaders will wholeheartedly adopt the policy and fight for it even if the party support it. The MPs after all are the only ones who can sort this out, if the Lib Dem party are for drug legalisation but the Lib Dem MPs are cowardly risk adverse nanny state controllers who won’t support it, then the wider party’s view is irrelevant.

    I doubt I’ll vote Lib Dem again for this reason, but I’m waiting in hope to be proven wrong.

  • LondonLiberal 8th Aug '11 - 9:21am

    if you think that parliament should debate the issue – outside of the merits of the party pushing (pardon the pun) for an inquiry – please sign the e-petition for cannabis legalisation:

    It’s currently the 6th most popular epetition!

  • People also need to be free to choose not to use drugs.

    As such we might for example legalise use of cannabis but we need to actively prosecute over use of it in ways that force other people to use it too – smoking in public places, or homes where it will ventilate to other homes (eg blocks of flats). There it should be treated like any other act of premeditated assault on the person.

  • You can’t make some of these addictive substances safe simply by regulating them and taxing the people that deal them. Smoking has declined massively in this country as it has become more expensive and people have been educated young about the health risks. Its probably too early to tell whether cheap supermarket alcohol will cause increased alcohol related disease. Impurity is a reason for drug related deaths, but so is a simple habitual excess of an addictive and harmful substance. I believe if it is legalised then more people will get caught up in drugs, including potentially more babies born addicted. Professor Nutt likened drugs with horseriding. I’ve been burgled twice and it seems highly unlikely to me that this was to fund someone’s horseriding addiction, expensive though horseriding is. I’ve not heard of many car accidents caused by a driver under the influence of horseriding. You can only equate the two if you consider only the individual and not the wider society. We definitely need to do more to help addicts, but creating more addicts would be a backwards step.

  • Excellent idea. One of the reasons I originally joined the party, so its nice to see us going for this policy.

    Alistair, you don’t understand the point. All these ‘addicts’ are already addicts – people are already taking drugs. That legalising or decriminalising drugs would get more people taking them lacks evidence,

  • @Alistair

    1) No-one says that it will make drugs “safe”. However what is clear is that prohibition of a substance doesn’t tend to actually decrease its use significantly (often the opposite), no matter how much you crack down. This shouldn’t be surprising as there are figures going back to the middle of the last millennium suggesting this* .

    There are other reasons to justify legalisation – but no-one says that this magically changes the pharmacology of the drug and makes it safe! No drugs are completely safe. Including ones that are legal. Including ones that are both legal and have no recreational use.

    It would pretty much entirely prevent deaths due to impurities though, was this what you are talking about? In any case, no-one sensible thinks it’d make drugs safe, just less dangerous.

    2) Impurity is a big reason for drug deaths. Other reasons associated with illegality such as massively varying doses due to a lack of quality control also result in substantial deaths (notably in heroin overdoses). In a regulated market the former cause of death would be all but eliminated and the latter would be substantially reduced.

    Saying that drugs can themselves be harmful is not anything hugely insightful – it’s not as if those advocating legalisation (including myself) think that drugs are harmless** – though many aren’t addictive. I think you must be very much misunderstanding or misrepresenting the position of those you disagree with to say otherwise.

    In any case, if a drug supply was consistently at the same dose and unadulterated then there would still be fewer drug deaths overall.

    3) You believe that legalised drugs would result in more drug users. The data, however, does not suggest this – in fact when decriminalised drug usage tends to decrease after a couple of years or so. Stating that legalisation would result in an increase in drug users is a pretty bold claim to be making without any evidence at all!

    Your whole argument throughout the entire piece actually depends on there being a pretty large increase in drug users following legalisation actually.

    4) Nutt compared the rates of death and serious physical or mental injury of ecstasy and of horseriding, I don’t really see where your burglary comes into it. You’ve just given a vague assertion that you think your burglaries might have been to fund a drug addiction and tried to connect it to an unrelated statement Prof. Nutt reportedly said (intentional or not you’ve done a bit of a straw man tactic here).

    Also, your logic would also very much advocate prohibition of alcohol as well, incidentally. The only paper I could see attempting to measure drink and drug driving in the same study was based on a sample of those injured from car accidents and the incidence of drink driving was more common than the incidences of driving under all the other recreational drugs combined.

    I’m not going to comment on the “under the influence of horseriding” comment aside from the alcohol aside because I don’t really even know where to start in countering that comment. There’s a lot to work with and I don’t think I want to have to waste my time by writing a counter that begins with stating that people don’t tend to ride horses and drive at the same time.

    However, I will briefly mention that advocates of legalisation tend to consider the wider society, particularly in regard to organised crime.

    *Ottoman Empire – the Sultan imposes the death penalty on those smoking tobacco. Despite this, tobacco use rises, and Constantinople becomes many heads lighter…

    **As an aside however, there has never been a confirmed death caused by LSD in humans. This isn’t to say that it is never harmful but it hasn’t actually killed anyone to date!

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