Opinion: drugs policy

Saturday was World Drug Day, a day intended to serve as a reminder of the need to combat the problems illicit drugs pose to society. The problems are numerous, deadly serious, and close to overwhelming to many states around the globe but the current prohibitionist approach mandated by the UN drug conventions has failed to make any significant impact upon the profits of the criminal cartels, demand for their products, and the terrible consequences of the trade for communities in the UK and beyond.

The UK currently spends around £19 billion on the criminal justice system due to the criminalisation of drugs. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that our strategy is clearly not working as intended. The last government steadfastly stuck to their strategy, repeatedly stating that drugs were harmful and criminalisation deterred people from using. But in Portugal, where possession of small amounts of drugs and their use has been decriminalised for nearly ten years, studies show that drug use has not increased while the number of users going through treatment has increased massively. The question that should reasonably follow is; If decriminalising drugs doesn’t cause their use to increase, why do we persist in allowing the trade to be controlled by violent criminals, and allow the profits that are made to continue to undermine the rule of law in so many producer and transit countries as well as our own streets?

With the coalition government hoping to raise £13 billion a year by bringing in a 20% VAT rate, would it not be sensible to examine drug policy changes that have been projected to save similar amounts to our economy? Would it not be much easier to achieve projected 25% cuts to the home office and justice budgets if the problem drug users that make up 55% of the prison intake at present were not trying to fund their drug use through muggings, burglary and shoplifting? Surely before cutting police numbers, we should attempt to substantially reduce their burden of work?

The time is right for these questions to be asked and the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform motion for autumn conference will restate the Liberal Democrat commitment to evidence-based drug policy. All we are asking is that these questions be taken seriously and that all options are examined in an attempt to identify the most cost-effective policy for the future. Where the evidence is already clear, it should be acted upon, and it is for that reason that the motion also calls for expansion of heroin maintenance treatment for dependent heroin users.

If the Liberal Democrats are to remain a strong force in British politics, we will need to be identified as the driving force behind policy changes which transform people’s lives for the better. In a time of spending cuts and tax rises, such policies will be few and far between. Acceptance of the reasonable requests made in this policy motion will reflect well on both coalition parties, could yield great benefits for communities hit hard by other spending cuts, and could provoke international debate on the issue based on sober analysis of facts rather than hysterical scaremongering. With youth unemployment at historic highs and projected to grow further, there is great risk to ignoring this issue and seeing another generation get caught up in a cycle of addiction and criminality.

The full text of the motion can be found on my LDDPR colleague Mark Thompson’s blog. Should you as a voting rep wish to add your support to the motion, please send your name, local party name and membership number to [email protected] before noon tomorrow (Wednesday)

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 30th Jun '10 - 12:32am

    see here for instance

    I don’t see any illiberal attitudes in that piece, although there is quite a lot of profound stupidity. (All crime has economic value, and to deny that is to refuse to understand why crime occurs and to reject any possibility of tackling the causes of it)

    The UK drugs policy is a failure. It has no appreciable impact on the availability of drugs, does not deter anybody from using them, costs a stupid amount of money, and turns a lot of people into criminals – and could not possibly be more favourable to the organised crime groups that supply the drugs, since it allows them to operate free of taxation or regulation while guaranteeing demand for their product and deterring people from informing the police of their activities.

    Sending addicts to hospitals instead of prisons would be an excellent start.

  • Kehaar, you assume that legalisation would see an increase in usage. In Portugal, drug usage has remained the same since possession of drugs was decriminalised. On the upside, decriminalising drug use means there is less stigma for drug users to seek medical help when they want it and it stops them mixing with more hardened criminals when they are convicted.

    I noticed that The Economist is running a Tube poster campaign on this issue. Finally time for it to receive mainstream consideration?

  • Paul McKeown 30th Jun '10 - 9:42am

    I agree with the idea of decriminalisation.

    It would remove the incentive for criminals to profit and it would remove a large part of police work.

    The “war on drugs” is unwinnable: time to bring home the troops.

  • Nothing is more generative of sanctimonious humbug than talk about (illegal) drugs. To call for liberalisation (or even to tell the truth) is almost a taboo in this country, as Professor David Nutt discovered to his cost. When he was Home Secretary, Jack Straw insisted that the very suggestion of liberalisation causes young people to become addicts, so we must all go along with the establishment line, even if we know it’s nonsense.

    The “war on drugs” is certainly unwinnable, but is “victory” the reason the war is being fought? Note that this “war” started in the United States, and has been exported through the imposition of international treaties. The illegal drugs trade benefits elites in a number of ways. It allows the US government to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. It facilitates the control agenda by increasing crime and generating fear. The victims tend to belong the the underclass, and are disproportionately members of ethnic minorities. Eugenics without the gas chambers.

    I’m for breaking the taboo. The media have already smeared Nick Clegg as a Nazi. Frankly, I doubt if they can harm him much more by calling him “soft on drugs”. Besides, a lof of people are coming to notice the Emperor’s state of undress. Forty years without a result – time for a change.

  • Richard Ian Hill 30th Jun '10 - 1:44pm

    One of the things that makes drugs popular in my mind is there are not many better feelings than getting one over on organizations like the police, That I think is one of the reasons why the usage rate does not go up when it is legalised. Making it a medical, instead of a criminal problem would go a long way towards removing that effect. The hard part is changing the system in a way that does not make it any more available.

    The present system where tried and tested drugs, sometimes over thousands of years, being banned is dangerous. Now we are getting strange chemical substitutes that have had no real testing being sold quiet legally, that worries me more. It is time for some sense on the subject before there is some horrible consequence.

  • Dave Oakley 30th Jun '10 - 3:47pm

    Drug 1.
    Alcohol is harmful – licences to sell required – public drunkeness and driving under the influence is criminal.
    Massive cost to the NHS. Usage and problems increasing due to the Government allowing ‘open all hours’,
    low prices and provision of minimal public education. Policy failed and will change.
    Drug 2.
    Tobacco is harmful – advertising heavily restricted – smoking in public places banned. Massive cost to NHS.
    Usage decreasing due to vivid public education and the Government increasing and maintaining high prices.
    Policy succeeding and will continue.
    Drug 3.
    Narcotics are harmful – no doubt the minority who believe drug use is a personal choice and should be legalised will never be convinced to the contrary but a civilised society has the right to try and protect itself from harm. The majority must prevail over the minority and the majority of people do not drink themselves senseless or smoke themselves to death and do not wish either themselves or future generations to become alcoholics, cancer victims or drug addicts.

  • Dave Oakley,

    It is all very well to launch into a polemic about the evils of substance misuse. What you have negelcted to do is tell us what the state can do to suppress it. The use of illegal drugs has been a prominent social issue in the developed world since at least the 1960s. Every attempt to suppress it has proved utterly ineffective, and has contributed to crime waves at home, and the destabilisation of a number of developing countries. Prohibition has been an unqualified disaster.


    If the production and distribution of currently illegal drugs was brought into the mainstream economy, would the human effluent of which you speak not be deprived of its livelihood?

  • Dave Oakley 30th Jun '10 - 6:19pm

    Drug 3
    As with alcohol and tobacco there is no comprehensive solution – the forbidden will always be sought out – that’s human nature. I had hoped that by demonstrating that public education linked with hopefully increased prices resulting from efficient intelligence and Border Controls can at least exert some measure of restraint and that it would be clear that this is the best we can hope for in order to protect society.

  • I see no problem with legalising Cannabis… Cannabis is quite clearly not as dangerous as alcohol and much less dangerous than a lot of the substances you can buy at the supermarket. It is both less dangerous to the individual and less dangerous to those around the individual as it doesn’t increase agression.

    That said, I don’t believe dangerous addictive drugs like Heroin should be legalised, not only are the markets more niche for drugs like heroin anyway (meaning legalisation would have less of a benefit)… you only have to look at the opium dens of the 19th and early 20th centuries to see what kind of effect legalised opiates can have on society…. people freely buying an extremely addictive drug to turn themselves off to the world.

  • On incidence of drug use: as valid question as “does legalisation increase rates of drug use?” is the inverse “did criminalisation lower rates of drug use?”. The answer to both is no. Study after study has shown comprehensively that legality and frequency of drug use are causally uncoupled, and consequently attempts by various authorities to “crack down” on drugs and drug-related problems fail miserably. There are other factors at work here.

    On society “protecting itself from harm”: Society has that right. It is categorically refusing to use that right. An Impact Assessment of the current drug legislation would restate the myriad of evidence that suggests that the status quo of prohibition has no winners and many many losers. Dave Oakley, in your precis of facts about the three drugs, you fail to include the crucial point about Drug 3. Prohibition is failing as a policy, as gravely and as obviously as any policy has ever failed.

    With the Liberal Democrats as a coalition partner, and while a realist remains as justice secretary (time may be against us!), we must grab this bull by the horns and deliver perhaps the most lasting and positive legacy this coalition can achieve.

  • Dave Oakley 1st Jul '10 - 9:32am

    Interesting debate – taking various points on board suggest consider this:-
    Drug 1
    Alcohol – totally legal but abuse continues. Policy needs to follow that applicable to Drug 2 Tobacco.
    Drug 2
    Tobacco – totally legal – use continues but declining due to dramatic public education and high prices.
    Drug 3
    Narcotics – illegal – increase dramatically public education on the downside of narcotics, offer assistance, not prosecution, to users and addicts but continue to target suppliers at all levels to the full extent of the law with the intent of driving up prices i.e. follow tobacco policy which is working.

  • Dave, it is precisely those high prices that lead directly to the huge amounts of drug-related crime and the appalling health of addicts. At any rate, price inflation in narcotics black markets is way way more dramatic than the high tax on cigarettes.

    As long as drugs continue to be illegal, there will be a black market, and no “targetting” will change that. That’s what current policy is, and the authorities have found quite clearly that they cannot control supply. This is because of prohibition, and the huge amounts of profit available to black marketeers as a result. The solutions you suggest are simply not backed up by any evidence that they would work, and indeed would only exacerbate all the current problems caused by prohibition.

  • If the supply of drugs remains illegal but the usage is not the price would remain high but the users would be able to get help from the medical proffesion. One of the things I noticed when I was a heroin addict was that I could not safely ask anyone for help. Because of the price , most people would probably ask for help. This would cause the black market to colapse due to lack of buyers, I hope. If there were fewer dealers then there would be less people to draw new people into that murky world. It might not work but if it was set up well I think it is worth a try

  • Could people stop using the term ‘decriminalisation’? Talk about sending mixed messages; it’s not illegal, but it’s not legal either… what are people supposed to think??

    Look, something’s either legal, or it’s illegal. There is no middle ground. We should fully *legalize* soft drugs like cannabis, and that means regulated cannabis cafés on the street. If UN conventions say that we’re not allowed to legalize cannabis, we should ignore them on the basis that the UN has no business whatsoever dictating our internal drugs policy.

  • Q: Who caused the most violence during alcohols
    prohibition ?

    A: The people with all the guns who were making a
    profit from it (Gangsters).

    Q: Who causes the most violence now during
    marijuana prohibition?
    A: The people with all the guns who are making a
    profit from it (Police).

    Not hard to see when you take a step back and question the lies churned out by the people who will lose money once marijuana prohibition goes away. A Billion pounds of funding over 40 years for a war against British citizens. A war which in 40 years has not met a single goal it has tried to achieve. A Billion pounds plus every scrap of personal property and money seized from harmless marijuana users. Now ask yourself why so many other crimes go unstopped, the answer is because they don’t have the profit margin for the police that marijuana does. Go ahead and try to prove me wrong .

  • Paul McKeown 1st Jul '10 - 4:36pm

    The other “vice” issue that political parties are usually too afraid to speak of rationally is, of course, prostitution. A debate on liberalisation of uncoerced commercial sex would also be welcome. As it is, the debate is smothered by moral majoritarians predicting the end of family life as we know it and shrieky feminists making unfounded claims that all prostitution is sexual enslavement and male hegemonic violence. I would suggest that liberalisation of uncoerced commercial sex would allow the police and the courts to concentrate their efforts where it is most needed, in suppressing coercion, whilst allowing health and social services to deal with issues of mental health, addiction, familial abuse and poverty and raising significant levels of taxation from the current consensual, but black market, trade.

  • legalise cannabis to and assume the same laws which alcohol contains:
    cannabis(all strains weed,skunk ect..)
    or atleast a lower drug class from class b down to class c
    cannabis shud be legalised as it is not an addictive drug and also less harmful than alchol (no deaths have been recorded from the use of cannabis)
    more co-ordination than alchol and more sense of direction
    also i am not a user of this drug i simply “overstand” the situation which a uk government does not . -.-

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Jul '10 - 1:51pm

    hopefully increased prices resulting from efficient intelligence and Border Controls


    No government has ever succeeded in capturing or obstructing any significant quantity of drugs movement across its borders. No government has ever succeeded in pushing up prices with such a strategy.

    You look at all the security theatre at airports, and you think this means they can stop things moving into the country? It doesn’t work that way. By and large, drugs aren’t moved through airports. They come in at night by boat to an isolated beach that doesn’t even have a pier, let alone any border police within ten miles. It’s not possible to guard all the coastline of the country, there’s way too much of it.

    It’s just impossible. You can’t close the borders to things which are valuable enough to expend that much effort. Even if you did find a way to push up prices, that just means the drug cartels can spend even more money on sneaking the stuff in, and their profits increase – it’s favourable to them.

  • Let”s suppose drug use were to be legalised in the UK – what type of tourist trade would all of you proponents envisage? Even the liberal minded Dutch drew back from that. If a program of legalisation was not internationally agreed, and it never would be, then you are just asking for trouble the like of which you could hardly imagine.
    As they say Democracy is a very poor form of Government but it’s the best we’ve got – likewise prohibition is a very poor form of control but it’s the best we’ve got.

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Jul '10 - 9:18pm

    Even the liberal minded Dutch drew back from that.

    This is a misconception about Dutch politics. The big liberal party pulled out of coalition government in 2006, forcing an election. They are now ruled by a coalition of two “Christian democrat” (Tory-lite) parties and their equivalent of Labour. You’re looking at a shift from “two liberals plus a Tory-lite” to “two Tory-lites plus a Labour”. They don’t represent very much of the population and the next election is likely to shake things up again.

    The Tory-lite parties are the “ban cannabis” section, and always have been. Their Labour coalition partner does not support them in this, and neither do the rest of the parties. All that has changed is that the government is now stuffed with talking heads promoting an “anti-drugs” agenda that they have no hope of ever getting passed.

    (Psychedelic mushrooms have been banned, due to hallucinating people doing stupid things and getting dead; obviously this argument does not apply to cannabis)

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