Opinion: Being tough on drugs means being pro-reform

The Sunday Times is claiming to have knowledge of the results of Jeremy Browne’s drug policy “grand tour”. In an article today, Put that in your pipe, Mrs May, the paper describes many conclusions expected to feature in the final report which will bring great cheer to the ordinary Liberal Democrat member:

“A review ordered by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, and due to be published before Christmas, is expected to suggest Britain could benefit from emulating two American states where the use of recreational cannabis is legal. The Home Office report is also expected to call for the introduction of heroin “shooting galleries” where hardcore addicts are given the drug on prescription in an attempt to reduce crime; and a new approach to club drugs. …also expected to suggest that primary responsibility for drug policy should be shifted from the Home Office to the Department of Health.”

This is all very positive — and in keeping with the drug policy motion passed by conference in 2011. But there are things in the article that give me cause for concern.

The first is the connotations of the language used by The Sunday Times. Their phrase, “… the Lib Dem ministers want a dramatic relaxation of the law after concluding that the government is losing the war on illegal substances”, describes a party throwing their hands up in despair and throwing in the towel. If we could persuade the broadsheets to adjust their language and instead say things like, “…the Lib Dem ministers want sweeping changes to the law so that government can more effectively restrict the ability of drugs to do harm”, then we might instead be framed as brave warriors striding onto the battlefield with the most up-to-date anti-drugs weaponry.

Nick Clegg has already started well in exploring this route with the phrase: “I’m anti-drugs – it’s for that reason I’m pro-reform.” But we need to work more with the broadsheet press (largely supportive on this issue) to put across the message that we are actually “tough on drugs”, but that we feel it unjust to persecute the people who use them.

I am also concerned at the attention being paid to the cannabis legalisation models of the US states of Colorado and Washington as opposed to that being proposed in Uruguay. I worry about the ability of a nation steeped in free-market fundamentalism to protect young people from the potential dangers of cannabis. I’d hope Norman Baker could visit Uruguay before the report is concluded so that he could take in the arguments for a more tightly controlled market, proposed as a solution to health and crime problems, and bravely in defiance of public opinion.

This has the potential to be an area in which we differentiate ourselves strongly from the Tories before the next election. If we can persuade allies in the press to help us present our policies as by far the toughest and most responsible course of action, then we could be proud of doing the right thing while transforming a “third rail issue” into a major source of new votes and members.

* Ewan Hoyle is a West Scotland list candidate for the Scottish Parliament election next May

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  • Great article, if we can turn public opinion so addicts are viewed as patients with an illness that need treatment instead of criminals we’d be big step further to reducing drug related crime and the social issues they cause. One question I have (and I’m sure you’re much better informed than me), but it appears that drug use is trending downwards over the past couple of years? Is there any reason for this? Are attitudes towards drugs changing?


    @ Peter I agree, this is something we can really differentiate on as a party, and its exactly the sort of Liberal policy we should pursue, knowing full well the other parties can’t or won’t.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Oct '13 - 9:03pm

    No, no and no. Just say what you are doing and be proud of it. Don’t do one thing and then try to spin it as another to win votes. This is one of the reasons why people hold politicians in contempt.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Oct '13 - 9:08pm

    My above comment doesn’t express my opinion on drug policy. I refuse to debate with a spinner. Rebellion is the only way to stop the spin.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Oct '13 - 9:41pm

    OK, I went a bit extreme, but if decriminalising drugs is being tough, then what is criminalising menthol cigarettes? It is like when people try to market benefit cuts and making the mentally ill almost crack through welfare sanctions as “reforms to help the poor”, when it does the opposite. People should keep messages simple, honest and direct.

  • James McCorry 13th Oct '13 - 10:44pm

    I hope that the ministers in question are serious about bringing through proper regulation instead of what we have now, its shockingly obvious that what we have been doing for the past 40 years has failed, whether Theresa May likes it or not with her distorted “facts”. Drug use has went down primarily because legal highs are well… legal. Yet much more dangerous than the drug they’re replicating.

    Having worked with young people who have all sorts of substance abuse issues, I’ve found Alcohol, Benzos and Opiates to be the big problem causers. IF they are going to take any substance, I would rather they smoked a bit of grass instead of popping a load of diazepam or going out and looking for opiate patches on the street. It needs to be recognised that Cannabis IS safer than other popular drugs out there, and since the market for illicit drugs isn’t going away, Cannabis is by far the safest option for people who want to use mind altering substances. Its certainly safer than drinking Alcohol. Doesn’t mean it needs to be encouraged, but the vast majority of Cannabis users are sensible productive members of society – issues arising from abuse always stems from something else lacking in their life.

    Like Peter said, this is something that could work in the favour of your party. Being non-aligned myself, it would certainly push me in the direction of being more supportive of the Lib Dems who are generally quite a sensible party stuck with an overbearing “brother” in Government!

  • Alisdair McGregor 13th Oct '13 - 11:28pm

    I don’t see what the problem is with people taking drugs for recreational enjoyment, TBH.

    As long as you aren’t harming anyone else, why should I (or the state) interfere?

    People jump out of aeroplanes, climb mountains, race motorbikes and other massively risky endeavours (c.f. the observation that horse riding is more dangerous than taking cannabis). We don’t stop them from getting their kicks in the way they want, why should we stop people from getting high if that’s the way they want to enjoy themselves?

  • Matthew Heenan 14th Oct '13 - 9:04am

    Cannabis should never have been prohibited in the first place and the sooner cannabis is relegalised the better.

    Cannabis is a remarkably benign, but not harmless, herb used by people as long as there’s been people. In contrast, prohibition is violent, counterproductive at reducing harm, racially implemented, expensive on many levels and has caused more harm to people and society than cannabis ever could have without its prohibition.

    Cannabis has medicinal properties, is a safer recreational alternative to alcohol and tobacco and the sooner it’s market is regulated that responsible adults have access to quality assured, well labeled, potency specific cannabis from accredited outlets ie chemists or pubs etc the sooner we can reduce the harm of a market run by organised crime.

    Prohibition is indefensible from a harm reduction perspective. We now have hard evidence that where regulated harms from cannabis are reduced. Given a choice, as with tea, coffee etc people choose medium strength cannabis.

    Regulation of cannabis is inevitable. The challenge is to implement a system that best serves a discerning clientele with age restrictions, sensible pricing, opening hours etc. With prohibition all such decisions are left to the illicit market.

  • Jonathan Hunt 14th Oct '13 - 11:05am

    Whether drugs are harmful or safe, whether or not people should have the fredom to use them, are not questions with an easy answer.

    What is beyond dispute is that most narcotics are only available from crimminal sources, who are in the drugs market to make huge profits. It is why many users (addicts) are themseles forced into crime to raise money to pay the suppliers.

    Remove the profit motive and suppliers will stop selling. That requires some kind of state monopoly selling at a price close to cost that still provides enough funds for medical supervision of purchasers.

    Or am I over simplifying?

  • There is a difference between legalising cannabis similarly to alcohol and tobacco – ( because liberals think adults should be free to do what they want with their bodies if it doesn’t cause excessive harm – ) and ‘legalising’ dangerous drugs like heroin to remove it from criminals who often sell it adulterated with even more nasty chemicals and bugs.

  • George Miles 14th Oct '13 - 12:31pm

    Ewan wrote: “Nick Clegg has already started well in exploring this route with the phrase: “I’m anti-drugs – it’s for that reason I’m pro-reform.””
    Including alcohol, minimum pricing etc?

  • Richard Dean 14th Oct '13 - 12:50pm


    I have a right to family life, which means I have a right to expect society to create an environment in which my children are safe. An environment full of shooting galleries doesn’t seem like that at all.

    My children are likely to try anything legal and easily available, as well as some things that are mildly illegal. Therefore I want these things – available, legal, and mildly illegal – to be safe.

  • Richard Dean 14th Oct '13 - 12:52pm


    Criminals are like everyone else, they need to earn a living, they need things to do. Keeping cannabis illegal at least gives them that something. Making it illegal will just push them to more toxic activities.

  • I absolutely support drug law reform – but I’d be quite disappointed to see us spinning it as ‘tough on drugs’.

  • Is this a collective decision “So are we all going to be smoking this marijuana then?” or is it an individual one “Do I want to smoke marijuana?”

    Instead of all this lifestyle-judgemental stuff about how you have better ways to get people off drugs, in other words better tactics than the other parties, putting forward a decriminalisation model – why not say that you don’t see that smoking marijuana is a collective decision and you are going to legalise it, in other words, you have better values than the other parties.

  • @ Richard Dean

    I’ve often wondered about this, if you legalised all drugs what the hell would all these dealers do? Do we think they’d just go ‘OK I’ll get a proper job now’. Doubt it. However, its not a reason to keep drugs like Cannabis and some of the clubbing drugs illegal when they cause less harm that socially acceptable alcohol and tobacco.

    Lets not kid ourselves though, cannabis *is* harmful. Not only is it highly carcinogenic but it causes serious mental issues in some people and complete lethargy in others. I’ve seen very bright talented people waste a decade up in smoke doing nothing other than watching TV and eating Pringles. Hell of a waste, but they seem happy enough.


    Allow me to be facetious: Criminalise fluffy cushions, so that the dealers move into the black market in fluffy cushions instead of drugs.

    This is of course nonsense. Crimes are committed when there’s a motive, means and opportunity. Decriminalising drugs won’t change the motives, means and opportunities of other crimes. In fact it will free up police resources will enable us to tackle the most serious crimes and reduce the opportunities that orginanised criminals have to profit from them.

  • James McCorry 20th Oct '13 - 4:48am

    @Gareth Wilson

    Cannabis is not harmful, current evidence shows it has anti cancerous properties rather than what you suggest. It does not cause serious mental issues either. There have been studies done to suggest it can act as a safer way of managing these problems than through diazepam (government sponsored addiction). Wade through prohibitionist propaganda and scare stories from the Daily Mail (not exactly bastion of truth and respect) and you’ll find many scientific studies into the matter that come to those conclusions.

  • Richard Dean 20th Oct '13 - 5:52am

    According to many websites cannabis contains many poisons, not just the THC that is the relaxant.

  • darren gilchist 20th Dec '13 - 12:57am

    It’s the only way forward for the uk hope the correct choice is made

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