Opinion: my Guardian drugs surprise

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Cannabis stance is wrong, says Lib Dem drug campaigner

This was the surprising headline that greeted me on the guardian website just a few short hours after I’d made my maiden speech to conference.

I wasn’t planning to give a speech from the conference floor when I arrived in Liverpool. Having seen the latest motion I had drafted on drugs policy again be rejected by the Federal Conference Committee, I was instead concentrating on encouraging as many people as possible (without being too pushy) to attend the fringe event “It’s Time We Talked About Drug Policy” at which I was speaking.

But in a quiet moment flicking through the conference agenda, I came across the policy consultation session “Facing The Future” and it’s segment “Security and Liberty” and put in a card on the off chance I’d be called to speak.

Buoyed by the success of the fringe event the night before (speech can be found here, including annual joke at expense of Melanie Phillips) – but still hideously sleep-deprived on account of my atrocious decision to book a bunk in an 8-bed hostel dormitory – I hastily drafted my speech in the hour before the session and was grateful to be the first called to stand by when Security and Liberty was introduced.

With hindsight my interpretation of “standing by” should certainly have been more literal than the “sit 50 yards from the stage” approach I adopted, so it was a long walk to the podium with my heart pounding in my throat. And this is what I said:

“Drugs policy… Ehm… (all other “Ehm”s – and there were many more than I would have liked – have been edited out) The last time we talked about it was in 2002, and we certainly haven’t heard our candidates and representatives talking about it very much since. I put it to you that we have been silent on this issue because we got our position wrong. Our policy, especially on cannabis, is a soft on drugs policy, and it has left us vulnerable.

Myself and Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform colleagues commissioned a poll in July asking 2000 people whether they found light regulation, strict government control and regulation or prohibition more tolerable for a series of drugs. For cannabis the results were revelatory. 33% supported light regulation, 37% supported strict regulation, and only 25% supported prohibition. Total support for legal regulation was 66% for readers of the Daily Mail or Express, 67% for Conservative voters, and the greatest support for strict controls came from 35-54 year-old women, presumably the group containing the most mothers of teenage children. Strict government control and regulation is a tough on drugs policy we could be proud of.

We have to start discussing policy features like pharmacy sales, the provision of detailed education on harms before individuals are permitted to purchase the drug, and bans on branding and marketing. We have to find the policy that can best protect our citizens from harm, especially our children, and that can end the massive profits for the criminal gangs that control the illegal trade.

One byproduct of such a policy on cannabis could be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of pounds raised in taxes. There are nearly one million young unemployed people in the UK at present and hundreds of thousands of problem drug users. We need to find a way to stop the lost generation of unemployed youth becoming truly lost in a life of drug dependency.

I would suggest diverting proceeds from a legal cannabis market into providing the best possible treatment services for problem drug users. This should include taking a firm stance on opioid maintenance treatment. Methadone works, but diamorphine – pharmaceutical heroin – is considerably more effective and is being sold to hospital pharmacists at approximately one fifth of the equivalent dose of methadone.

(I was asked to wrap up here so didn’t deliver the next sentence. Maybe I went a bit overboard on the dramatic pauses).

If we made it available at the same cost to drug treatment clinics alongside much improved psychological and social service provision then we could attract a great many dealers, street prostitutes and habitual criminals into treatment, reduce the points of entry for others into the same lifestyle, and reduce the funding such people provide to the Taleban through the illegal opium trade.

Increasing numbers of respected figures in British society and the international community have been calling for decriminalisation and legalisation to be debated. It is time the Liberal Democrats answered those calls and engaged in rational debate on the potential benefits of reform.”

I sloped off the stage in the manner of a grumpy teddy bear, clearly disgruntled at myself for getting my timing wrong. Maybe that Taleban and street prostitutes sentence could have earned me an article in an actual newspaper. Probably not, though I have been praised by Deborah Orr in a short piece she wrote for the guardian relating a very enlightening medical drug anecdote . And the Times reported my speech in their “from the floor” round-up in a series that included Nick Clegg, Jeremy Browne, Chris Huhne and Lord Ashdown.

I’ll take that from a maiden speech with “Ehm”s, fluffed lines and dropped passages. Here’s hoping I can deliver a better conference speech in favour of a long-overdue drug policy motion at our next conference in Sheffield.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • Paul McKeown 5th Oct '10 - 4:02pm


  • Decriminalisation as seen in Portugal reduces possession from a criminal offence to an administrative offence. In practice this has seen people going in front of panels and being recommended treatment or other interventions. Portugal didn’t consider legalisation because the UN conventions would not allow it. Sadly, decriminalisation still leaves the trade in the hands of criminals, with all the negative consequences that entails. It is most definitely not a positive end-point to aspire to. It is no surprise to see cops suggesting it as a way of freeing up resources to tackle the supply chain at a higher point, but there are problems in the state decriminalising a potentially harmful drug and not putting in the costly measures that Portugal has in an attempt to address use.

    Legalisation (or strict government control and regulation as we advocates prefer to call it) gives an opportunity to educate individuals before they choose to use, and takes the supply, profits, and importantly the marketing away from criminals. It is a far more proactive and cost-effective way to address the problem and can be presented with a harm-reduction goal at it’s heart.

  • Great speech and glad to see someone trying to make get a positive debate going.

    With the (sadly essential) cuts to public services we are seeing currently, surely the financial aspects to the decriminalisation/legalisation of cannabis are enough to get our Government to reform our archaic drug laws? Currently there are BILLIONS of pounds going to criminals, completely untaxed. The current laws do not control supply (or demand!) of drugs… and they never will. Prohibition doesn’t work – this was proved by Alcohol Prohibiton during the 50’s in the US and it’s proven even more so by the current situation seen in towns & cities across the UK now. It seems the main argument from people against a change in law is mainly a moral one, which is shocking to say the least. ALL DRUG LAWS SHOULD BE SCIENTIFIC BASED… and that includes Alcohol & Tobbaco, which kill hundreds of thousands each year and yet seem to be able to distance themselves from illegal drugs (no doubt something funded by the manufacturers themselves).

    I am a firm believer in the legalisation and (most importantly) control of ALL drugs. I hope that one day this will happen and we’ll look back on the last 50 years of the failed ‘War on Drugs’ and wonder what the hell we were playing at.

    I’d like to know if Proposition 19 (to LEGALISE Cannabis in the state of California in the States) will have any effect on our new Drug Strategy to be revealed in December? The Americans are the main force behind legislation for all drugs across the world (sadly), so hopefully if the bill passes we will see a domino effect across the world. The only people who seem to be against the bill are people who stand to lose funding for their part in the control of drugs, which speaks volumes!

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