The Sun: “Nick Clegg makes a powerful case for reform of our drugs laws”

The Lib Dem website says this: “Nick Clegg has announced that the Liberal Democrat manifesto will include a commitment to end imprisonment for possessing drugs for personal use, so that no one is sent to prison, where their only offence is one of possession. Under the proposals, users would instead receive non-custodial sentences and appropriate medical treatment.”

That’s not so surprising. The Lib Dems have long argued for a more rational approach to our drugs laws, with Nick making the point before that “If you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform.”

More surprising is that The Sun newspaper says this:

Kudos to both.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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30 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 8th Aug '14 - 9:56am

    “It’s high time for a rethink” – 🙂

  • I’d like to see the statistics Nick is referring to – do we really spend millions locking up youngsters for cannabis possession?

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 8th Aug '14 - 11:45am

    There have been some FoI requests on the numbers. There are typically 500+ people serving custodial sentances for possession for personal use at any given time (possession with intent to supply is recorded separately and is a higher number in the low thousands).

    The “cost” of a prison place is a bit contentious, because you’ve got a lot of semi-fixed costs, but £100 a night is a not totally unreasonable number to put on it.

    That would add up to about £15-20million per year. So the stats pass the sniff test for me. It isn’t huge numbers but enough, and it seems counterproductive and relatively inhumane to treat addiction problems like this even as a last resort.

  • Freddie Burke 8th Aug '14 - 12:49pm

    what is the argument against legalising and taxing weed again?

  • Freddie Burke 8th Aug '14 - 12:49pm

    what is the argument against legalising and taxing weed again?

  • Stephen Hesketh 8th Aug '14 - 12:59pm

    @Freddie Burke 8th Aug ’14 – 12:49pm
    “what is the argument against legalising and taxing weed again?”

    Apparently it makes people repeat themselves 😉

  • @ Caractatus

    I’m no expert in this but I would have thought prescribed heroin could just be sold on, unless it was used used in the clinic?

  • The email said “Let us know what you think of this change here”, so is the leader announcing policies and then asking for opinions? Seems the wrong way around. Followed the link and said no, I didn’t support ending prison for drug possession. The site then thanked me for supporting the policy and asked for a donation. Letting the leadership know of my view seems to consist of a yes/no question, the response to which is ignored. Great. Still at least there is this place.

    The email from Simon Hughes says: “Around 1,000 people were sent to prison in England and Wales last year for the possession of illegal drugs, including 500 people for cannabis posession. Many of them are addicted or have a medical problem, yet are not given the treatment they need.”

    This is not an argument against imprisonment, and the extremely low numbers given the level of drug use suggests it is extreme cases only that end up with jail sentences, it is a condemnation of the prison service and as an MoJ Minister Simon must carry some responsibility there. Custody (and it could be a secure but compulsory hospital) should include mandatory drug addiction therapy.

    The potential for a custodial sentence is a strong deterrent for some, the “respectable members of society” who might otherwise be tempted to deal with organised crime and buy drugs. Thus this policy will remove that deterrent and encourage some to take up drugs and put more money in the hands of the dealers.

    Drug users, those with the biggest problems are often also involved in other forms of criminality to fund their habits – the drug possession sentence may well be the tip of the iceberg and merely the headline conviction. Whilst these people are in prison or secure units general petty crime and burglary falls. Keep them there under lock and key until they are treated, rehabilitated, and less inclined to break into my house or car. And so sayeth 99.9% of the population.

    I don’t need to pretend Tory and Labour spin doctors haven’t already worked out the tag lines – Lib Dems, soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime. This kind of nonsense policy was OK when Lib Dems were not ever in prospect of government. It is a patently stupid and ill-conceived policy in the run up to an election for a currently unpopular party of government hoping for 5 more years. Who is this appealing to? Who are the sympathetic victims who need our support and the public, ones the voters, will understand? They are the ones that rob our houses and steal our cars, and hold our Grannies up at knifepoint on pension day.

    So three things – firstly democracy is about asking then developing a policy party members can support, not about fake endorsement of someone’s pet project; secondly it is a loony policy that the other parties can inflict some wounding blows on us with; and thirdly how in the world can you ever sell this policy to voters? Grow up, we’re a serious party now.

  • Richard Dean 8th Aug '14 - 6:20pm

    In 2013, a MORI poll found that “53% of the public want cannabis legalised or decriminalised, and 67% want a review of Britain’s approach to drugs”.
    http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3134/Public-attitudes-to-drugs-policy.aspx

    Should we really assume that anyone possessing cannabis is mentally ill? I’ve known cannabis users who give no such symptoms, and can even be more alert and perform work-type-tasks better after a light spliff.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Aug '14 - 8:13pm

    I understand that it is Conference which makes policy, not our leadership. Is this no longer so?

  • Richard Wingfield 8th Aug '14 - 8:46pm

    @SteveL – Based on the findings of the MORI poll, it would appear that at least 53% of the population agree with this policy. I note that you don’t use any evidence or research to back up the assertions in your post that this would lead to more people taking drugs and higher rates of crime. If there is such evidence from other countries, please do share it.

    The evidence from Portugal, which decriminalised possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use (10 days’ worth maximum) has seen no increase in the number of people using drugs or in crime generally. It has, however, seen a reduction in the number of overdoses, HIV infections related to drug use and a surge in the number of people undertaking rehabilitation. I think it’s a model we should look at very seriously.

  • @Richard Wingfield. You’re mixing up the policy change with something entirely different. 53% of people support decriminalising of cannabis. I would be in that 53% myself if the market for recreational drugs was regulated and licensed like alcohol and tobacco. Prohibition doesn’t work and consumes huge resources. That is not what this policy change says and the MORI poll has no bearing on it, nor does Portugal.

    The email from Simon Hughes gave a figure of 1,000 people jailed for possession of drugs, half of which are there for stuff harder than cannabis, and he wants them let out because the prisons don’t treat the addiction. Out of 5 million or so who have used drugs in the last year (source, Crime Survey for England and Wales), so these are really extreme cases that you have to assume contain some form of extenuating circumstances to get custody, a danger to themselves and others. Those that rob to pay for their addiction or engage in persistent antisocial behaviour for example. Those are the people this policy puts back on the streets, not the casual user, the student, the harmless pot smoker, none of whom are locked up for possession in any case. If there are a handful amongst those 1,000 who fall into those categories then there has been a misjustice.

    The policy change does not address the lack of custodial drug addiction treatment which is where these extreme cases should be. It does not decriminalise the supply of drugs nor change the organised crime supply chain but does remove a major disincentive for buying drugs from that supply chain. It is, for that reason, ill conceived and half baked. If the leadership said we’re going to take the 1,000 prisoners out of the mainstream prison system and put them in secure rehabilitation facilities as a voluntary alternative, great. If they said we’re going to decriminalise cannabis and you’ll be able to buy it from Boots, fantastic. If they were honest and said rehab treatment is as expensive and probably much more expensive than jail but it’s worth it as it’s the right thing to do, they would have my backing. But they are saying release the 1 in 5,000 of drug users that have ended up in court and that a panel of experienced magistrates or a judge has deemed a danger to their community to the extent that custody is warranted. Madness and not supported by 53% of the population.

  • Richard Dean 8th Aug '14 - 11:54pm

    @SteveL
    Seems like good points. It seems that, before we can assess this proposed policy and provide the answers the email and link ask for, we need more information about those 1,000 cases, and about the cases that don’t get to prison, and about the availability of rehab programs in prisons, and about rehab programs as voluntary alternatives to prison.

  • Richard Wingfield 9th Aug '14 - 12:24am

    @SteveL – You’re right that the poll only referred to cannabis. That was a mistake on my part and so it’s not clear what public opinion on this is, so I take that part of my comment back.

    I’m not sure we can say at all what the specific reasons are for those 1,000 people being sentenced to prison when the vast majority are not without the facts of the cases being revealed. I’m not sure we can be sat- as you suggest – that these are the cases where the individual has committed robbery or theft to pay for the drugs, as then they would have been prosecuted and sentenced for offences of robbery or theft, not possession of drugs. Further, anti-social behaviour is not criminal and so you wouldn’t be sentenced to imprisonment simply because you possessed drugs as part of broader anti-social behaviour. Instead, you’d probably get a fine and a CRASBO.

    Instead, I suspect that these are the cases where the individual has a long history of previous offences of a similar nature and the court simply feels that these aggravate the offence such that a more serious punishment is required. The practice of escalating punishments for similar crimes is fairly commonplace amongst courts and my instinct is that that is what is happening here.

    I have no doubt that the policy is not just to prohibit imprisonment as a punishment for drug possession. Indeed, the policy is that users would receive “appropriate medical treatment”. That seems far more sensible. Our prisons are so full of drugs that any suggestion that prison is the best place for drug rehabilitation is laughable. It has to be in the community. If the actions of the individual are such that they pose a danger to the community, then they should be punished for those actions (the theft, the robbery, the violence or whatever), not the drug possession. After all, possession of drugs, in and of itself, is of no harm to anyone except the individual concerned and so, rightly, should not lead to incarceration.

  • It seems prison sentences are taking the limelight on this debate. I take drugs about twice a month, from cannabis to cocaine. (No further than that though, no heroin or meth for me!) I am also a Civil Engineering student getting some of the highest grades in my class, because i’m a genius? No. Because i work myself to the grindstone to get there.

    Would any of you think its fair that because on a rare night out i have been found in possession of MDMA i get cautioned by the police, probably not, after all it’s hardly a prison sentence is it? What isn’t fair is that the chances of me getting a job in my chosen profession is significantly reduced to slightly above impossible. I have never a car high and endangered lives, nor have i gone to a lecture high let alone to work! Why should my life hang on the balance of what most people would call a ‘light punishment’ personally i think i’d rather go to jail than live in that sort of prejudice.

    And the thing that most people don’t understand is that i am not an exception (especially among students) showing that drug use can be maintained and kept under control without ruining your life, i’m just another average joe who choses to do drugs.

    They do not define me, they are not part of me, they are a choice i make every now and then ,and nothing more after that!

  • Are we sure that imprisonment removes access to drugs?

  • I can understand why somebody might get home from work, roll a spliff in the comfort of their home and not really cause any problems to anyone else (forgetting the supply chain that resulted him in having possession in the first place). I would not advocate that somebody like this be imprissoned, however. I am unfortunate enough to live close to a property used for small scale supply and home to significant drug use. It is from this first hand experience that makes me very wary of any attempts to decrimininalise possession. Aside from the anti-social behaviour and petty crime associated with drug use (it seems illiberal that local children are unsafe to play in the community from drivers under influence etc yet users of illegal substances have the freedom to use free from punishment.). At this local property a number of users are on methadone programmes that rather then assist in helping them to quit drugs they use as a top up to the substances they buy illegally. This highlights that some pretty radical reform is required to ensure that drug users who say they want to quit the habit just to get hold of methadone are dealt with. Handing out methadone and such is not the same as rehabilitation. (One might argue you can control and treat drug addiction better in the confines of a prison). There are also the inequitable issue of registered drug users receiving benefits akin to disability benefits. Not sending those repeatedly convicted of possession to prison would not help my neighbours. They say they want to quit, get methadone programme, do illegal drugs as well, don’t contribute anything to UK economy but receive benefits and reduce the freedom of those in the community. Decriminilising possession will not assist them to get help and quit. They don’t even want to. These types of user will only get off drugs with tough interventions and decriminalising possession will act as a green light and send out the wrong message to future generations. (The Netherlands for example has many problems). I agree we need to be in a society where nobody is left behind. I’m all for education to try to keep people off drugs before real addiction kicks in. I’m all for those who really want help to receive it free from the threat of being arrested (but would we let for example a person who likes child porn to have small amounts of child porn from the state to help kick their habits). I believe that we still have a lot of work to do around other drug issues before we can begin to think about decriminalising drug possession.

  • Neil Sandison 9th Aug '14 - 9:40am

    I have some sypathy with PaulHowdens comments but would add i largely support the arguement that criminalising those who take soft drugs for recreational use is a waste of taxpayers money .Why are we not treating this problem in the same way as we treat alcoholism and alcohol abuse.It is the abuse in public spaces which causes the most concen to the public.
    Alcohol abuse can be controlled by section 27 notices if the behaviorof the user is deemed as anti-social indeed they can face a fixed penalty notice of up to £80 and be banned from the area identified on the notice (a map is provided )
    In Rugby i am looking with the indepenent police commissioner into a scheme where we not only have warning signs in alcohol free areas but that those signs carry the number of the substance abuse team to encourage self referral

  • I have no problem with people using drugs – as long as they are adults and accept that they are responsible for their actions whilst “high” just like people who drink. However, if the LibDems think this is a vote winner they will have to get someone better than Simon Hughes to put forward their case. I watched him on Newsnight yesterday and he couldn’t explain how the changes would be any different from the current policy. When LibDems get a chance to appear on high profile TV programs to discuss their policies they need to be better prepared, last night Simon Hughes was pretty hopeless.

  • Jail for personal drug use is vindictive and makes no sense at all. In most cases, jail would cause the user more harm than the drugs would, can you imagine if certain MPs got time for their cannabis possession in their youth? They’d be doing very different things with the lives today if they had been in jail.

    I’m actually amazed that this is even a point for debate, how far behind the times must politics be? If all someone has done is possess illegal drugs for their own use and their is no other crime associated with it (no dealing, no stealing etc…) then jail isn’t necessary as there is no victim, and jail will not make things any better, only worse.

    I hope this policy is implemented but I just don’t see how the Lib Dems can implement this given that they have blown their chances of re-election over the whole student tuition fees debacle. And whilst I would love to see this happen, if I vote Lib Dem how can I trust them to implement this? Would they take it off the table for another coalition?

  • Mr Wallace

    ” if I vote Lib Dem how can I trust them to implement this? Would they take it off the table for another coalition?”

    They would drop it in a heartbeat if that was the price for another coalition with the Tories.

  • There seems to be some misinterpretation still. If you want cannabis decriminalised then forget it, that isn’t the policy change as put forward in Simon Hughes’ email to members asking for support. There is no suggestion that you will no longer get a criminal record if caught in possession of drugs, only that jail isn’t one of the potential punishments for being caught. If you think that every cannabis user is going to be forced into compulsory medical treatment when they don’t need or want it then you’d be wrong there too. It is only about not imprisoning the 1,000 extreme cases (out of 5 million people who use drugs each year) who do end up with a prison sentence and the reason given is that they don’t get treated in prison. And as Simon’s email said, only half of those 1,000 were there for cannabis possession – the rest one must assume are there for the harder stuff.

    The money saved would be fed back into rehab programmes and organised crime policing. Since rehab costs more than jail and only some of the savings would go to rehab schemes, logically you can work out that there will be insufficient funds redirected to treat the 1,000 who were jailed and very little directed at combating organised crime dealer networks. It is reasonable to suppose that the outcome of the policy change will be solely to put 1,000 people who magistrates and judges have determined to be a danger to the community back into the community with the greatest disincentive to misbehave removed entirely.

    This was a wasted opportunity to open a debate on how to alleviate the problems of drug abuse (which is not necessarily all use of drugs) in our society and the Lib Dems have a long history of radical and imaginative thinking on the issue. Instead the leadership highlights the 1,000 with no background on the the reasons why they were thought dangerous enough to incarcerate, and proposes to release them whilst not providing mandatory treatment resources or making any impact on the organised crime networks behind drug supply.

    What I find somewhat shocking is that we do not seem to have the central research teams to develop a coherent and credible proposal to deal with drug abuse that could carry votes in parliament and the electorate. One that our opponents could not rip to shreds in seconds. We do have tens of thousands of highly intelligent members still though, who should have been consulted properly and found all the holes in advance of public pronouncements. This seems to belong in the class of policy before 2010 when it didn’t matter because no-one would believe the Lib Dems could be in government anyway. These days it matters a lot.

    If we’re going to free up jail space perhaps decriminalising TV license and council tax non-payment might be better avenues to explore, and neither require the savings to be redirected into rehab centres and extra police.

  • @Malc

    ” if I vote Lib Dem how can I trust them to implement this? Would they take it off the table for another coalition?”

    They would drop it in a heartbeat if that was the price for another coalition with the Tories.

    So what’s the point in the Lib Dems then? What is non-negotiable for them, that principle wouldn’t they take off the table, other than no referendum on Scottish independence which is now happening anyway that is?

  • Mr Wallace

    Under the current leadership and the direction they have taken I’m not sure there is a point, they used to be the “trusted” party, but who believes a word they say after their famous “pledge”. LibDem ministers look so comfortable alongside Tory ministers in is very difficult to tell them apart. I’m sure some will say I’m talking rubbish, but out on the street most people just think we have a Tory government. If you like this government vote Tory, if you want a alternative vote Labour, UKIP or Green.

  • Paul Griffiths 10th Aug '14 - 12:31pm

    @Mr Wallace

    You need to remember that this is an open forum. Just because you ask a question you shouldn’t assume that the answers you get are somehow the official response of the Lib Dems.

  • Jordan, I don’t mind you using cannabis or cocaine and believe that they should not be illegal but I do wonder how you justify your support of the criminal gangs that cause so much harm in the supply chain. Campaign for the legalisation before you continue to add to the demand.

  • @Sir Norfolk Passmore
    Thanks! It doesn’t sound like we do spend millions locking up youngsters if we’re talking 500’ish people a year in total, I wonder how many under 21’s are in that 500 – very few I should imagine (first offence, etc).

  • Alcahol, fags etc. kill people in the end there is no good benefits atal out of these drugs!!.. But cannabis on the other hand does not cause cancer like alcahol, and fags do ..it actually slightly reduces the risk.. it can cure cancer and it relieves people of pain the lot!!.. Itis just the most idiotic thing that cannabis is illegal.. With the tax we could fix our econamy and everything.. With it being illegal its so much easier to get it cause dealers dont ask for ID and if it was soled in shops and had a strict ID law and a very strict law on people who buy for underage will have a minimum of 5 years imprisonment it will fix everything!!!!

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