LibLink: Julian Huppert: Politicians can’t afford to look tough any more. We need to embrace drugs reform

Writing in the Independent, Julian Huppert makes the case for drugs reform in the wake of the Parliamentary debate brought by he and Caroline Lucas. They were debating the Home Office report instigated by Liberal Democrat ministers which provided evidence that the prohibitionist approach simply doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, the Tories did everything they could to suppress it. Julian writes about the debate and the Liberal Democrat perspective:

My party, the Liberal Democrats, having been pushing for reform for a long time – as have a small handful of others, such as the veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn. We want to see an approach that recognises that drugs are harmful, whether they are legal or illegal, and seeks to reduce that harm. The evidence shows that the best way to achieve that is through reform, and so we should move to something like the Portuguese model. However, to date we have faced strenuous opposition from the Labour and Tory frontbenches, who insist on trying to look tough.

However, we made real progress in the debate. With one exception, every single speaker spoke out in favour of reform. There were nuances as to the details of the reforms needed but clear agreement that we need to listen to the evidence and change our approach. Despite the hostility of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister – a hostility that is odd, given that in opposition the PM called for reform, and even supported look at options such as legalisation and regulation – every Tory MP who came to speak disagreed with them, and supported our approach.

The only dissenting voice during the debate was, sadly, Labour’s Shadow Minister. She was the only person who wanted to argue for the existing failed policy, and did a spectacularly poor job of justifying it. So regressive and counter-intuitive was her approach that a fellow Labour MP stated she [did] “not know what world she [the Shadow Minister] is living in.” In contrast, Norman Baker, then the Drugs Minister, spoke compellingly for the need for an improved policy.

Our motion passed unanimously. The Shadow Minister, and any other MPs who continue to want to stick with the status quo, clearly did not have enough courage in their convictions to vote against it.

You can read the whole article here.

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18 Comments

  • How are you going to reduce use of drugs (as opposed to harm)?

    In Portugal, for example, after the decriminalisation, the proportion of those who had tried illegal drugs went up from 7.8% in 2001 to 12% in 2007. This is clearly not a drug policy that succeeds in stopping people using drugs.

  • David Faggiani 11th Nov '14 - 3:16pm

    We don’t need to reduce the use of drugs, do we? Innately? Just my opinion!

  • Just my opinion

    We should vote on it.

  • Glenn Andrews 11th Nov '14 - 3:59pm

    We could start by placing Legalisation of Marijuana on the front page of the manifesto.

  • Billy Boulton 11th Nov '14 - 4:06pm

    There is no point in reducing the “use” of drugs as such. It is the harm caused by drugs that needs to be reduced – that may happen if use levels drop or it may not, but it is by no means a “given”. So the increase in use quoted in Portugal is in no way on its own a sign of the policy “failing”.

  • There is no point in reducing the “use” of drugs as such

    So say you. I disagree.

    Let’s have a big vote and see how many people in the country agree with you, and how many agree with me.

  • Glenn Andrews 11th Nov '14 - 5:21pm

    Dav, I think that what others arguing against your view are saying is that an increase in drug use when set against the boost to the coffers of organised criminals, the propping up of corrupt regimes, the needless criminalisation of millions of otherwise law abiding UK citizens, the billions of uncollected taxes, the bloody slaughters in South America, the waste of police time and resources, the lack of quality control, not to mention the fostering of intolerance and ignorance toward recreational narcotics users…. and even if you want to see a reduction in the use of these products surely the best way of doing that would be to put government health warnings on the side of the packet.

  • Dav

    “Let’s have a big vote and see how many people in the country agree with you, and how many agree with me.”

    So your argument is it is popular not it is right.

    Public opinion can change, often when people become aware how nasty the side effects are of prohibition. If we took a opinion polls as teh basis for changing things we would currently operate under an AV system. When their was an actual debate and vote people took a different view to the initial one they told pollsters.

  • “The evidence shows that the best way to achieve that is through reform, and so we should move to something like the Portuguese model.”

    Yet drug use has fallen sharply in Britain in recent years. Not so in Portugal. This is yet another example of Britain’s most “evidence-based” MP taking a position that flies in the face of the evidence.

    In response to other posters, of course reducing drug use alone does not guarantee a reduction in harm (though it does ceteris paribus). But please note: having a “prohibitive” drugs policy does not mean you can’t provide effective harm reduction as well. Which, as the much-vaunted Home Office report made clear, is exactly what we do in Britain already. It’s not an either/or.

  • “We could start by placing Legalisation of Marijuana on the front page of the manifesto.” – I’d vote for that. Oddly enough since 2012 this issue has been put to the electorate in 4 US states and the capital city and in every case the voters have approved it. Didn’t matter if it was a large rich city like Washington DC, a rural conservative state like Alaska, a Liberal State like Washington state or Oregon or even a swing state like Colarado, every where the voters have said yes.

    I believe the Liberal Party in Canada are arguing for complete legalisation and around 10 points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls there.

    Problem is, I don’t believe the Lib Dems are sincere. I honestly thought they were sincere over student tutition fees and look where that got us.

  • Daniel Henry 11th Nov '14 - 9:53pm

    Stuart, if you look again you’ll see that Julian was talking about reducing harm rather than necessarily reducing drug use. As I understand it, Portugal’s approach led to far improved health outcomes.

    There are ways prohibition can increase harm. Although most drug users aren’t given prison sentences for possession, some still are, a prison sentence that quite probably harms them more than the drug use.

    It also means that the government loses control of the market. The trade is run by criminals with no regard for the welfare of others in how they conduct their business compared to a licensed and regulated operation.

    Lastly, a number of health organisations are claiming that making it illegal disincentivises addicts from admitting they have a problem and finding help.

  • Some seem happy to keep paying taxes to fight an unwinnable war (sounds like New Labour!), but I don’t see how this benefits them. I’d rather we taxed drugs and put the money back into the NHS, rather than spending millions locking people up and criminalising them. Why should we all have to pay for other peoples drug habits? Why wouldn’t you want drug revenues brought into the white market? Polls suggest people have tired of prohibition and support change, so the populist argument doesn’t hold water like it used to.

    >This is yet another example of Britain’s most “evidence-based” MP
    >taking a position that flies in the face of the evidence.

    No it isn’t, and I’m no Huppert fan. You’re suggesting that there’s a direct correlation between the current strategy and outcomes, which seems ludicrous to me. You also seem to hold stock in the government measurements of drug usage, yet there are so many “legal highs” and “research chemicals” now that the measurements are completely meaningless.

  • @Daniel Henry
    “As I understand it, Portugal’s approach led to far improved health outcomes.”

    But what sort of approach were Portugal taking before? Did they already have an effective harm reduction strategy, as the report says Britain does?

    @ChrisB
    “You’re suggesting that there’s a direct correlation between the current strategy and outcomes, which seems ludicrous to me.”

    Of course I said nothing of the sort. I pointed out that, despite people like Huppert constantly saying our drugs policies are a disaster, we have experienced a large decrease in drug use in recent years. Much more so than the country Huppert would like us to emulate (Portugal). The onus therefore is firmly on Huppert to prove that our current policy is stopping us from doing even better.

    “I’d rather we taxed drugs and put the money back into the NHS”

    If drugs are decriminalised, I’d personally like to see a large chunk of the tax receipts diverted to foreign aid so as to help some of the people who abroad whose lives are a total misery thanks to Western drugs users who are only interested in themselves.

  • @Dav “Let’s have a big vote and see how many people in the country agree with you, and how many agree with me.”

    That’s a very interesting comment and a very interesting subject. If you put legalising cannabis to a vote in the UK you might actually find people voted for it. Referendums change people’s opinions because you get lots of TV debates before the vote and people’s minds get changed by who has the best arguments. Prior to the Scottish Independence referendum debates based on the polls you might have thought it would go down 2 to 1. Yet in the end that nationalists came pretty close with 45%

    I find this a really interesting subject, I’m sad, I know and looked for a yougov survey on attitudes to drugs in the UK and I believe that people are persuadable about cannabis legalisation, not persuaded. This tells me if you had a vote tomorrow cannabis would not be legalised but if you had one in six months time after a campaign from both sides them who knows. Here are the interesting bits from yougov –

    http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/qq214l0ijx/YG-Archive-Pol-Sun-results-121212-drugs.pdf

    Cannabis –
    Status Quo 49%
    Decriminalise 25%
    Legalise 20%
    Don’t know 6%

    From that it would seem that there was a near solid majority in favour of criminalisation, there is a near majority but how solid is this 49%?

    Question to those same people: Would you support or oppose a Royal Commission to consider the different drug policy options, to include the current system of criminalisation, decriminalisation of drugs or full legalisation?

    Support a review 60%
    Against a review 20%
    Don’t know 21%

    So more than half of that 49% are willing to have a review and listen to the evidence, they may have a position and may not change their position but are, I believe, willing to consider an alternative otherwise why have a review? This is further backed up by the response to another question.

    Question: “Would you support or oppose limited trials of the Portuguese approach in some British cities?”
    Support 60%
    Oppose 24%
    Don’t know 16%

    I read these results as this –

    About half the population currently support the status quo, the other half currently support softening the criminal law against drugs and a few don’t know or don’t care.

    About 60% of the population want other approaches seriously considered including trials of alternatives while about a quarter of the population (half of that 49% ) are dead against any softening of the criminal law. A referendum could go either way, it would depend upon who the public though won the arguments. Only about a quarter of the population are hardened prohibitionists, but then again almost a quarter of the population say they want the out right legalisation of cannabis now too.

    Yeah, lets have a proper debate, not gutter press hysteria and put it to a vote. Bring it on.

  • >we have experienced a large decrease in drug use in recent years.

    No, we haven’t – we’ve simply not been able to categorise “research chemicals” and “legal highs” fast enough, your statistics are meaningless and if you’d been to any rave or festival in the past decade this would be self-evident! You’ve fallen into the trap of believing that the government has meaningful statistics on drug usage, which has perpetuated many of these problems for decades. If you’re happy that the stats are going down because they’ve moved on to nice legal drugs like nitrous oxide that’s great, but I think it’s a terrible outcome caused by the ineptitude of people like yourself – we had a 26% rise in drink/driving related deaths last year (we’re quite good at measuring this particular thing, death is hopefully harder to cover up than DMT use).

  • we had a 26% rise in drink/driving related deaths last year

    And I suppose you think that could be reduced by the decriminalisation of alcohol?.

  • Dav

    “we had a 26% rise in drink/driving related deaths last year

    And I suppose you think that could be reduced by the decriminalisation of alcohol?”

    I think you forgot to make your point.

  • >I suppose you think that could be reduced by the decriminalisation of alcohol?

    I suppose you couldn’t think of a worthwhile response? I think drink/driving offences would be minimised in the long term by a sensible education policy that doesn’t outlaw products but makes everyone more aware of the risks and dangers inherent in taking them. I also think that all drugs (including coffee, tobacco, alcohol) should be taxed according to the estimated social costs associated with those substances and funding aforementioned education. You can go into any bar and order 80% proof Absinthe that’ll mess you up as good as any class A drugs but with no prior warning of it being significantly different from a glass of wine, the current policy is bizarre. Many drug dealers inform their customers of the basic perils of their product, but you’d never get that happening in a pub or bar when ordering drugs that can make you lose days (years?!) of your life. Contrary to what others have stated, but not substantiated, more people are dieing each year from drug misuse than ever before – from the ONS :

    Male drug poisoning deaths increased by 19% compared with 2012. Female drug poisoning deaths have increased every year since 2009.
    Male drug misuse deaths (involving illegal drugs) increased by 23%, from 1,177 in 2012 to 1,444 in 2013. Female drug misuse deaths increased by 12%, from 459 in 2012 to 513 in 2013.
    Heroin/morphine remain the substances most commonly involved in drug poisoning deaths. 765 deaths involved heroin/morphine in 2013; a sharp rise of 32% from 579 deaths in 2012.

    We spend millions a year locking amphetamine dealers up, but you can click a couple of buttons and get Methiopropamine sent to your door legally. The current policy is about as convincing as your one liners – let’s have a big vote and see how many people in the country agree with you, and how many agree with me.

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