Opinion: the lone maverick won’t change drugs policy. An army of moderates might.

As a passionate advocate of drugs policy reform, I was very excited on Wednesday evening about the prospect of a former drugs and defence minister coming out in favour of regulated drug supply. I thought someone with such experience could blow the debate wide open, and we could really start getting to grips with the issue as a nation. Sadly the debate that resulted was again loose and ill-defined. Was he talking about legalisation of all drugs, decriminalisation, prescription of heroin to addicts? Because the debate was poorly defined, it was allowed to spin out into sensationalism and I quickly got the sense that this wasn’t going to be the breakthrough I had hoped.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that drug policy reform is not going to happen soon if we are going to continue this trickling pattern of lone mavericks each proclaiming different varieties of the sensible, progressive message. What we need instead is for all these mavericks to get together with respected stakeholders and work to produce ONE message, one set of policies which can be held up as the first step. Reformers need to engage with other lobby groups outwith the major political parties whose activities aren’t closely monitored by the Daily Mail for any sign of intelligent (and therefore reprehensible) thought. We need to engage children’s charities and talk through how best reform can tackle issues of child neglect and abuse. We need to talk to police associations about how best to reduce serious organised crime and petty thefts. We should talk to retailers about the potential to massively reduce shoplifting. We should invite the teacher’s unions in to talk about how we close off criminal career opportunities for disadvantaged children and help them engage in education as their best means of advancement. Mental health charities can make vital inputs into breaking the links between depression and addiction or between cannabis and psychosis. The list of sensible influential groups who can contribute to the development of and subsequently support a single message of moderate reform could go on and on.

The identification of a few focused, moderate policies also allows the political parties to go to their focus groups and pollsters and ask them whether they’ve been right to fear the voter’s wrath on the issue. We know that voters don’t particularly like the idea of legalisation, but we now also know that strict government control and regulation is much more appealing.

A few sensible policies with well-defined expected benefits can take all the fear out of the debate and allow us to move forward.

I have my own ideas of what I think this single message should look like, and it has three main features:

Firstly, the strict government control and regulation of a legal, British cannabis market. This should not be a liberalisation of current law, but a concerted effort to reduce the harms that cannabis and the illegal cannabis market have for individuals and communities. The poll linked to earlier suggests pharmacy sales, age restrictions, a ban on marketing, comprehensive education on harms before individuals are licensed for use, and prices set by an independent panel tasked with the aim of balancing minimising the illegal market and discouraging use. Such a model may gain the greatest support from voters as it is furthest from an anarchic free-for-all, but stakeholders need to get together and discuss whether it will be the most successful in minimising harm.

Secondly, increased investment in drug treatment services that are proven to decrease harm. The new government drugs strategy is right to identify recovery as the ultimate goal and to describe drugs addiction as a complex problem that need to be addressed alongside psychological, social and employment interventions. But opioid substitution therapy in the form of methadone and diamorphine if necessary is essential in many cases if the lives of dependent users are to be stabilised before they can consider what kind of recovery they can handle. Diamorphine maintenance treatment has the potential to be a remarkable outreach tool for the most vulnerable and/or disruptive users in our communities, and its sensible employment could vastly reduce the available points of entry for others into the same lifestyle.

Thirdly, the movement of possession for personal use of any drug from a criminal to an administrative offence. This step in reform can only work if there exists effective and well-resourced drug treatment services into which drug users can be directed. Portugal has led the way on this and decriminalised drugs possession has been so successful it is now as much an accepted feature of the political landscape as prohibition is in the UK. The reform allows drug use to be seen primarily as a medical problem and the numbers of individuals entering treatment has rocketed as a result. It is so much easier to seek help for a loved one if you know they will always be treated by a doctor and never a judge.

These three features of reform run through the core of the latest drugs policy motion I have drafted for the next Liberal Democrat conference. The Liberal Democrat membership are a group with power and influence, though it could be argued that the precise level of that influence is on the wane. What is more important is for those with undisputed power and influence from the business, public and charity sector to get together and formulate a way to break the political deadlock on this debate. If instead we see over 20% cuts to drug treatment services like those Bob Ainsworth reports from Coventry happening all around the country, then Britain’s drug problem will get a whole lot worse, crime will spiral out of control, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be punished severely at the ballot box.

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  • Quite frankly this is how change happens.

    The Civil Rights movement in America didn’t stumble upon the charismatic Martin Luther King, organise a few protests – and then hey presto! change just happened.

    It was through decades of a growing movement of people putting in the hard slog to create the conditions so that change can happen. The shame is (and Peter Reynolds will know this as well) some patients using cannabis do not have the time that we are talking about.
    But we must carry on anywya.

    Well done Ewan – and I agree with Peter – let me know hat I can do. Im ready to join this movement for change in our drug policy.

  • Grant Williams 21st Dec '10 - 4:55pm

    You have my sympathies… anyone suggesting anything other than the current policy or heaven forbid something more Draconian is portrayed as being “soft”.

    Prohibition of alcohol created a very lucrative business for organised crime and brought with it violence, death, & despair. Without prohibition, we might still have had Capone et al, but quite possibly to a much lesser degree.

    The reduction of harm to individuals is crucially important. A few years ago a Chief Superintendent pal told me that two thirds of acquisitive crime was drugs related. Ouch! The quality of drugs is enormously variable, and often deadly.

    I’m not a supporter of widespread drug use. The only ones I use are prescribed for whatever ailment I’m suffering at the time. I don’t drink much either, but that’s because I’m often driving, and as those who have suffered it will know my driving’s scary enough when I’m sober…

    Best of luck with the campaign, it will be an uphill mountain to climb, but if we can get to a more rational system, worthwhile.

  • Hey Ewan
    I shouldnt be on here because I am a member of the Labour Party, and am so proud of Bob Ainsworth.
    Special mention should be given to Paul Flynn, Caroline Lucas, Tom Brake and Peter Lilley too – all of whom supported Bob last week. This proves we can get cross party support.

    This maybe fanciful but I am really hoping for a YES vote on AV. If a Drug Policy Reform Party ever got going I would have to seriously consider joining it. REFORM being the operative word, as I dont think prohibition will be dismantled by any other means.

    The only other thing I can suggest is we keep talking to our fellow citizens. This means our friends and families, especially those that support the status quo and are fearful of change in this area. Remember we have the evidence on our side. Switzerland shows us Heroin can be prescribed. The Netherlands proveds a model for Cannabis. Portugal shows decriminalisation for possesion does not turn society into Soddom and Gomorrah. And the USA (yes, that it the KING of the Drug War) demonstrates compassion to patients (in 15 states, at least) who need cannabis, and a growing debate on about the efficacy of prohibition.

    I am optimisitc, but not complacent. Until we can demonstrate to our politicians they will pay a heavy political price for supporting the status quo, things will contiunue as they are. (For example, my local MP has not replied to my email asking for their views, but Bob Ainsworth has replied thanking me for my support. Which reminds – if you want drug policy reform – go on twitter, sign up, and follow Bob Ainsworth and the other MPs who want reform too. Its a small step, but better than nothing.)

  • Ewan has made some very good points, however if a convincing case is to be put for drug reform we must be clear to provide evidence for the arguments stated. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area and am sympathetic to the underlying sentiment, however am wary of the way that it has been articulated in this case, particularly as there is an argument that we need ONE message. If that is the case I believe it needs to be based on ‘rights of the individual’ rather than ‘benefit to society’ especially if we cannot articulate to the electorate a benefit from liberalisation (which I expect will be the case).

    The clearest example/problem that I see in the post is the commonly stated argument is reflected in the statement.

    We should talk to retailers about the potential to massively reduce shoplifting.

    The line of reasoning states that since most shoplifting is carried out by drug addicts then if we prevent their need to shoplift then the amount of shoplifting will be reduced. I asked a police representative in my area if this was the case and he told me that this was not their experience. Local police know who the most prolific shoplifters are. If circumstances lead to the fact that all of these are arrested, which happens from time to time, this does not lead to a reduction in shoplifiting because new prolific shoplifters appear. It seems that shops have a budgeted level of shoplifting that is acceptable. If it goes above that they take action, if it reduces then they reduce in store levels of awareness. This leads me to deduce that this comment has been made without reference to any research. It leads to questions as to what evidence underpins the other arguments proposed which may well be perfectly valid because I have little experience in this area.

    I agree that drug reform is more likely if people unite around a common idea but it needs to be evidence. Authoritarians to a large extent use cultural objections, including some that are religious based, so we need to be very strong in that area countering with our own philosopical arguments. We should also use evidence wound around that argument.

    Personally I believe that an argument based on classical liberalism/libertarianism ie that the individual owns their own body is a better starting point than the ‘benefit to society’ argument. This ‘harm principle’ is, after all, the basis of our party. If there is to be ‘ONE’ massage that is one that can be articulated easily by us it is surely liberalism.

    If there is to be reform then small steps will be required. We need to be clear that ‘harm’ can be shown to be unlilkely as the first step to reform, rather than advocating that benefits in terms of crime reduction will happen. There is a big danger that if pilot schemes are run then there will be no reduction in shop lifting and the argument for reform will be damaged.

  • @Ewan

    I think that you have a good point in stating that when looking at the new prolific shoplifters we need to determine whether they are addicts from other areas, or non addicts who take the opportunity to shoplift. The impression that I had, however, was that it was a mixture of crack cocaine and heroin users switching from prostitution to shoplifting.

    I am concerned of the weight given to a single M&S manager. We need a rigorous analysis of all available information. This is available in the form of an analysis of changing crime patterns following the simultaneous arrest of large numbers of addict shoplifters in an area, and unfortunately that evidence points in the other direction. Analysis of island communities could provide the basis for a convincing argument if there is one to be made. Providing heroin addicts with prescription drugs would not cause a reduction in shoplifting in my view because of the shift from prostitution to shoplifting where the opportunity arose.

    I am a supporter of drug reform, which would need to be gradual and targeted, but would recommend that evidence beyond the M&S manager provided is generated before this goes to conference with supporting arguments about crime reduction. The target group is against the nanny state so it would at least be worth appealing to that argument that people should be free(er) to make their own decisions.

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