Opinion: Decriminalising drugs

drugsThe 2011 Liberal Democrat conference passed a motion calling for all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs to be scrapped, the introduction of a regulated market in cannabis, and the expansion of heroin maintenance clinics for the most fervent users.

The UK Drugs Policy Commission (UKDPC), published its final report in 2012. According to UKDPC, the cost of implementing current policy on illicit drugs is at least £3bn a year, but a lack of evidence for what works and provides value for money, and politicians’ unwillingness to act on available evidence, means that much of this money may be wasted on policies that are not cost-effective.

Among it recommendations were changing the UK’s drug laws so that possession of small amounts of drugs, for personal use, would be a civil offence instead of a criminal offence. According to the report, when this has been tried in other countries, such as the Czech Republic and Portugal, drug use has not increased and resources have been redirected to treating addiction and tackling organised crime. However, UKDPC found little evidence to support further relaxing of the law and recommends that the production and supply of most drugs should remain illegal. The report warns that allowing legal sale of drugs such as heroin and cocaine could cause more damage than the current drug trade.

David Blakey, a UKDPC Commissioner and former President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) , said: “Our current approach, of taking police action against people using drugs, is expensive and often does not appear to bring much benefit. When other countries have reduced sanctions for low-level drug users, they have found it possible to keep a lid on drug use while helping people with drug problems to get into treatment. “But at the same time, we need to continue to bear down on those producing and supplying illicit drugs. This is particularly important for those spreading misery in local communities.”

In an Interview with the Sun Newspaper in December 2012, Nick Clegg called for a major review of Britain’s ageing narcotics laws Nick Clegg: Time to re-think drugs .

Richard Branson, as a member of the Global Commission on Drugs, says decriminalising drugs would not lose votes and calls on MPs to not send addicts to jail.

Branson said: “People are languishing in prisons and lives are wasted. When I speak to politicians individually, I’ve found no one who disagrees. I would say that, if a party really took on the issue of decriminalisation and went for it, they would not lose votes. There is an economic case for investment in harm reduction. It has been proven in other countries that treating drug addiction as a health issue, not criminalising it, benefits society as a whole.”

It is time that Liberal Democrats committed as a party, to take drugs policy out of the realm of criminal justice system and place it firmly in the hands of the public health system.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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13 Comments

  • Re your first sentence, the 2011 motion actually called for a royal commission to be established to consider into those reforms.

    Re your last sentence, passing a motion and fully committing to something as a party ought to be the same thing.

  • The 2011 Motion can be accessed here Protecting Individuals and Communities from Drug Harms . The motion calls for:

    1. The Government to immediately establish an independent panel tasked with carrying out an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom.
    2. The panel also to consider reform of the law, based on the Portuguese model, such that:
    a) Possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offence.
    b) Possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions.
    3. The panel also to consider as an alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organised crime,and the health and safety of the public, especially children.
    4. The reinvestment of any resources released into effective education, treatment andrehabilitation programmes.
    5. The widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems; the se services should include widespread availability of heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users.
    6. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to retain a majority of independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership and no changes to drug laws be made without receiving its advice as per the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

    Two years on, with the Tories having blocked a Royal Commission and with work being undertaken in earnest on the Liberal Democrat Manifesto for the 2015 elections, I think it is time to commit to a policy of decriminalisation based around the recommendations of the UK Drugs Policy Commssion and the work of the Global commission on drugs.

  • Caroline Lucas, Brighton’s Green MP, some of her Councillor colleagues who run the council and the local Chief Inspector want to use the new localism powers to decriminalise drug use in Bribghton. http://www.beckleyfoundation.org/2011/06/brightons-mp-and-chief-constable-want-to-decriminalize-drug-use/

    Would be interesting to see if this works, especially using localism powers, as I should imagine other Local Authorities will be looking in interest.

  • Decriminalisation could incentivise drug-dealing criminals to do whatever it takes to sell more drugs. Legalisation is the only way to weaken criminal drug dealers and remove drug addicts and users from the black-market-only situation they find themselves in.

  • Well, decriminalisation could be tried on a local basis with softer drugs to see what effects if any it has on local crime.

    It could be tried for marijuana in some of the more “tense” neighborhoods or scenes. Perhaps, Northern Ireland during the Summer? 🙂

  • Localised decriminalisation sounds like a good way to make a sensible policy fail. If anything is going to cause drug “tourism” them making some accessible city somewhere into such a testing zone will do just that. We should be campaigning for decriminalisation nationwide. The evidence from Portugal, etc is absolutely clear – done like that drug-use rates don’t go up, and crime goes down as police resources are freed up.

  • MBoy is absolutely right. It was tried in Brixton and had a dramatically negative effect on the local community. Posh kids from the surrounding areas where anble to come to Brixton to buy their drugs, while the locals had to deal with the consequences of competition for drug dealing. If they try this in Brighton, I am almost sure it will have the same result.

  • Caroline Lucas is a member of the Green Party and while I don’t agree with many of their policy positions, one thing I have immense respect for is that all the policies in their Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (i.e. permanent policy collection) start out by stating the philosophical basis from which the policy is derived. This is what is missing in the Liberal Democrats.

    If the Liberal Democrats want to be anything more distinctive than a halfway house between Labour and Conservatives, then they need to establish a philosophical basis for drugs policy. Evidence-based policy, i.e. using evidence to determine the outcomes of a particular policy is fine, but you also need to a have a some kind of values by which you assess those outcomes. If you accept that it is legitimate for the government to establish civil penalties for cannabis use, then you accept that drug taking is a collective decision, not an individual decision and you only differ from the other parties in terms of tactics, not in terms of values, and you should rename your party as “The Centre Party”. If believe in some kind of separation of powers between the individual and the state, if you believe that cannabis use should be an individual decision and you don’t want to choose for someone else then you should make policy explicitly on that basis.

  • What a stupid idea
    Anyone who has had teenage kids and has lived in fear of them using drugs will think this policy is a car crash.

    Drugs are very harmful, and we need the law to protect our youth, who are not mature enough to consider the consequences of using harmful stuff, from this harm.

    what will you be suggesting next? legalising sales of fags and booze to 10 year olds?

  • Alexsandr,

    “Drugs are very harmful, and we need the law to protect our youth, who are not mature enough to consider the consequences of using harmful stuff, from this harm.”

    I think all would agree with that statement. It is for this reason, among others, that an effective drugs control policy needs to be put in place and we in the UK take on board the experiences of countries that have developed and implemented programs that are producing better health outcomes than our own.

    Nick Clegg in his remarks to the Sun last year summed up his position as “I’m anti-drugs — it’s for that reason I’m pro reform.”

    Libdem Minister Jeremy Browne is currently undertaking a review for the Home Office Home Office tour to study drug policies in 10 countries that will include a study of Portugal’s limited decriminalisation, Denmark’s ‘fixing rooms’ and Sweden’s zero-tolerance approach as well as the impact of cannabis legalisation in US States of Washington and Colorado.

  • Graham Smith 15th Jun '13 - 4:57pm

    Your article is absolutely on the button and the mantra from a generation of politicians that “Nobody ever got voted out of office for being tough on drugs” is at last starting to wear a little thin.Nowhere more so than in Colorado where politicians who espoused more liberal drug policy are now seen in a good light by all and sundry.
    Although I totally agree with everything that you say I think that the case for cannabis to be treated differently from other substances due to its medicinal benefits should be given priority and once legalised would put make a good vanguard for further reforms.Chaos has not ensued when cannabis has been legalised or decriminalised in other countries and there are more and more people getting real benefits from its use.The only legal cannabis in Britain costs the NHS three times as much as the criminal market charges wheras its actual cost to produce it in herbal form is a small fraction of the cost of currently prescribed proprietary medicines.Nick Cleggs most telling point in his honest evaluation of things was to point out the utter stupidity of fighting a so-called war where you finance your enemy on a pro rata basis.More prohibition more crime more funds for the criminals.

  • This is just wacko and not the wacky-backy kind of wacko.

    Introducing more competition into the the sale of drugs – which is what would happen, were the sate to become a supplier – would simply see the illegal dealer (the criminal) drop his prices – after all, you don’t think he’s going to disappear in a puff of strangely-potent smoke, do you? He’d also try to recoup his lost earnings by pushing harder drugs. Also, given many dealers are also pimps, he’d expect the women he prostitutes to make up the difference in revenue, making their lives ever more miserable – isn’t that a nice warm and cuddly thought?

    Altogether, another wacky LibDem idea.

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