What next for Lib Dem drug policy?

Wow, what a month March was for Liberal Democrat drug policy. First, the Lib Dem-commissioned independent panel report on cannabis regulation was published, advocating a framework for a fully legal regulated market for cannabis. Secondly, Norman Lamb proposed a motion to adopt the framework of the panel report as official party policy, which was subsequently voted in near-unanimously at conference. Finally, Norman presented a 10 Minute Rule Bill to the Commons, presenting our newly adopted policy to the rest of the House with an impassioned speech. The motion was voted through without contest and will now receive its second hearing later this month, on April 22nd. Progress indeed, although sadly it is deeply unlikely that the Bill will get past its second hearing.

However, before we congratulate ourselves too much having the most progressive drug policy of any UK party, we must ask ourselves what next? Where do we go from here? To know this, we must look at our existing policies, at what declarations we may have forgotten, and what new evidence can be brought to bear in shaping a truly liberal, evidence-based drug policy.

Ewan Hoyle, a long-time activist for drug policy reform within our party, alluded to this at conference, where he reminded the audience of the wider aims of our drug policy. In particular, he pointed out that much of the harm associated with drug use is often related to harder drugs, and it is these harms that it is essential we mitigate with intelligent policy interventions.

The long-standing principles of our party’s drug policy are that it must be evidence-based, respect the rights of the individual, work towards harm reduction, and be realistic. In our current political situation though, what is realistic needs consideration. We could, as some suggested, ask the independent panel of experts that conducted the cannabis report to reconvene and write reports investigating regulated frameworks for every other psychoactive substance in use. However, this would be very time costly, and in many cases, produce suggested regulatory frameworks that, despite their great merit, would not be politically palatable. I would suggest an alternative, a more incremental approach to advances in our drug policy, one that encourages change to come from a local level, rather than top-down decisions that, for the foreseeable future, are politically unrealistic.

What do I mean by this? Here are two disparate examples that, in my opinion at least, are both essential and robustly evidence-based, whilst also politically achievable; they also share some interesting common ground. The first is the adoption of drug testing facilities at clubs and festivals, or as walk-in centres, as exist in the Netherlands. These allow people using drugs, particularly club drugs like MDMA, to have them tested for impurities and strength, which prevents people ingesting unintended, dangerous substances, or overdosing on unexpectedly pure samples. The adoption of such testing facilities also comes with a raft of proven knock-on benefits.

The second, mentioned in Lib Dem policy documents as far back as 2002, is that of supervised injection facilities for injecting drug users, generally opiates. The benefits of such facilities have been immediately evident, with all examples of supervised injection facilities showing a dramatic, and often near-complete reduction of deaths from injecting drug overdoses within their communities. Another benefit of these facilities is it increases contact time between medical and support staff and injecting drug users, creating opportunities to provide advice and support for this particularly hard to reach group of drug using people.

The common ground between both policies is that they can both be instigated without making great changes to general drug laws, (although both are also easier, more effective and more feasible when drug decriminalisation policies are in place,) but merely by an adoption of de facto decriminalised spaces (testing or supervised injecting facilities), whereby drug users can make use of the services being provided without fear of criminal prosecution. As such schemes can be instigated at a local level, both are ideal candidates for ‘bottom up’ approaches to drug policy reform. A progressive and determined local authority could pilot such schemes to prove their worth at a local level, and in doing so put much greater pressure on government to roll out such schemes nationally, or at least provide valuable evidence that would help to persuade other local authorities to adopt similar schemes.

The challenge of instigating such schemes is that they would require close cooperation of both local health and police services and the support of local government and communities, but it is just such an approach that would suit Liberal Democrat aims of localised government and community-focused initiatives. The key difficulties would be convincing local authorities and police forces to adopt such initiatives, as it has often been the conservative nature of these authorities that has prevented such initiatives from being instigated. For example, it is generally the threat of event license removal by uncooperative local authorities that has prevented festivals from offering drug testing facilities of any kind, a move that unequivocally increases the health risks to the many festivalgoers who consume drugs at such events.

It is incredibly heartening to see the party adopting bold drug reform policies such as regulation of cannabis, but without political might in Westminster, we must also consider how we can usefully influence drug policy by looking at what may be achieved at a local level.

* Dr Henry Fisher is a Liberal Democrat and ALDES member living in London. He is the policy editor for VolteFace, a new platform that offers fresh perspectives on drug policy, lifestyle, and culture.

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19 Comments

  • Rightsaidfredfan 6th Apr '16 - 1:29pm

    The best thing to do is make sure the policy stays, and that the parties own MPs do not not undermine this policy by lining up to tell their local press that they personally do not support this and will not vote for it, again. I think the party have been here before…

  • Peter Reynolds 6th Apr '16 - 2:06pm

    Sadly, although I support the proposals, the LibDems continue to buy into and perpetuate Home Office lies about cannabis just the same as Fleet Street.

    The ‘Expert Report’ was nothing more than a re-brand of Transform’s work anyway, which policy is based on the evidence-free falsehood that ‘cannabis is dangerous’. Transform refuses to distinguish between drugs that are dangerous and drugs that are not and its whole strategy is based on treating cannabis the same as opiates. The health risks associated with cannabis are tiny. Far more harm is caused by enforcement of the laws around cannabis than by cannabis itself.

    While we have to be sensitive to non-users’ fears and concerns (they have been brainwashed by propaganda but that’s not their fault) , repeating lies such as cannabis causes psychosis or can cause severe health problems is nonsense.

    When I hear Tim Farron, Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb repeat these claims it makes me squirm. There is no evidence to support them. These are myths.

    Cannabis is not without potential for harm but no more than coffee and less than nearly all over-the-counter medicines. We have to be CLEAR about this truth.

  • I can’t see any local council which institutes such a local tacit decriminalisation policy staying in power for very long, given as those it would be popular among are will be too busy getting high to vote for them while those who do bother to vote are highly likely to take a dim view of toleration of drug use becoming public local policy.

    (Besides which: is it even within the powers of a local council to tell the local constabulary which laws to enforce and which not?)

  • David Faggiani 6th Apr '16 - 4:06pm

    Even if councils wouldn’t want to do it (or would get voted out for doing it), shouldn’t it be our policy to allow them that choice, at local level. Or indeed, at the proto-Federal level. Scotland? Wales? Cornwall? London? Could London not become an ‘Amsterdam’ test under a Lib Dem Mayor (or, more realistically, under a Labour/Tory Mayor influenced by a vocal Lib Dem Mayoral candidate)?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 6th Apr '16 - 7:15pm

    @Dav

    I think you’re talking nonsense. Any council that decriminalised cannabis would not be booted out of power. Legalising cannabis is certainly not a vote loser, most people don’t care either way and those who care and are dead against it are vastly out numbered by those in strongly in favour of legalisation, but both are small percentages of the population.

    This “it’s a vote loser” nonsense has got to stop. The main problem with the lib dems position is that they didn’t have the backbone to take that position before they entered office. Another party will implement legalisation now and another party will get the credit.

  • Henry Fisher 6th Apr '16 - 10:40pm

    @David F – Yes totally agree, it needs to be up to local authorities at whatever level to decide for themselves wether they would want to support any such pilot scheme. I think the challenge with both of the examples I gave is that currently many would not be aware of these issues or their potential value, so in making them party policy, publicising them and educating people on the issues, the likelihood of such schemes being successfully piloted is much higher.

    @Dav – Decisions to bring in a pilot scheme would have to be made with the full support of police authorities and local healthcare trusts of a given area as well and wouldn’t happen without prior discussion between all the relevant groups and full agreement, but it is interesting how much support such initiatives already garner amongst police and healthcare. With regards drug testing, there is already an organisation in the UK pushing for testing at festivals and elsewhere called We Are The Loop, and it provides testing facilities wherever possible, even in cases where the only samples that can be tested are those that have already been confiscated by security or left in amnesty bins. Regarding support from the police, another example to look at is the Durham Police (and some other forces) stance on cannabis, which is that of non-prioritising possession and small scale cultivation – essentially de facto decriminalisation, instigated by the police themselves.

  • Henry Fisher 6th Apr '16 - 11:02pm

    @Peter – I’m not going to touch on the panel’s cannabis report really as my post was mainly concerned with other drugs and initiatives, but even disregarding everything else, there is a political calculation at play here in maintaining fear of the dangers of cannabis as an illegal product: As you say, most people have, to a greater or lesser extent, an inflated view of the dangers of cannabis. To deny that and claim ‘no its safe, honest’ wouldn’t wash with most people, and also doesn’t provide much incentive to legalise for most. To instead argue that cannabis, as an illegal product, does pose some danger, but the way to mitigate that danger is to legalise and regulate, provides an emotive argument that may reach some that would not be touched by other arguments.

  • Peter Reynolds 7th Apr '16 - 9:03am

    @Henry Fisher

    Of course I understand that argument, I use it myself, it is the basis of any anti-prohibition campaign.

    However, if you cross the line into supporting misinformation and exaggeration then it becomes a straw man argument. It is falsehood advanced in order that it can be knocked down with the great white charger of regulation.

    Of course cannabis has the potential for harm if misused, overused or by very young or genetically vulnerable people. However, these risks are very, very, very small. The evidence does not support the claims of harm made by Farron, Clegg, Lamb, et al.

    The main harms that will be ended by regulation are those of the criminal market. Health harms will also be minimised but we cannot advance this cause by telling porkies just to appease Daily Telegraph readers. Just tell the truth! When people understand that science shows cannabis is safer that energy drinks or aspirin (and, of course, massively safer than alcohol or tobacco) then we can start to be rational about our policy on it.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 7th Apr '16 - 4:05pm

    Can anyone answer this please?

    Why didn’t the lib dems do this when they actually had power and were relevant.

  • If LDV is anything to go by, we seem to care more about the drugs issue than keeping the NHS afloat, the UK’s manufacturing/industrial strategy – or lack of it, regional inequalities of opportunity, closure of local libraries, rising self-harm in young people, international persecution of minorities, etc. I disagree with legalisation, but I am almost more worried by the fact that the Lib Dems seem to have made this their defining policy. We’re out of touch.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Apr '16 - 1:10am

    Judy Abel

    I would be worried if you were correct , but to see the concerns of many on LDV , where we mostly respond to articles and contribute to issues raised, as being a good yardstick of wider party views would , probably be an error .I am always aware that my colleagues and friends at local level or national , are aware of the very urgent and vital subjects and have a much greater range of views , and are often much more moderate and man or woman on the street common sense in their approach than some of the more , perhaps, rampant posters on here !However , the issue of soft drugs touches on other issues , addiction in general , crime , gang dealing , police resources , prison places for violent criminals made available , culture , civil liberties and so on !

  • @Lorenzo. What I meant Lorenzo was that, if you asked a person in the street what the Lib Dems’ top policy priority was, the drugs issue would probably come top – that is what I meant when I said we were out of touch. I think Caroline Pidgeon is doing a better job at getting some key Lib Dem messages across in London – on transport, pollution and knife crime etc

  • In Lincolnshire there’s very few – if any – votes to be gained by making it legal to smoke pot. However, if you could come up with a decent policy for out of hours medical cover, you’d be surprised how popular you would be.

  • @Malc Exactly right, and maybe policies on adequate rural transport, affordable rail fares and reviving rural economies. Legalising drugs is not going to help people outside the London bubble very much.

  • Just as a footnote to the last LDV drugs policy blog, a Guardian article on Friday raised some serious concerns about cannabis use and mental health in vulnerable people https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/apr/15/cannabis-scientists-call-for-action-amid-mental-health-concerns

  • Judy Abel has a point.

    I don’t know what the polling indicates, but I suspect (however right it may be to liberalise drugs laws) it doesn’t play well with the vast majority of the general public.

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