Jeremy Sare: Liberal Democrats-fighting the fear of talking about drugs

Jeremy SareA British party of government has just agreed, almost with unanimity, to policies that would shred many of our drug laws.

Perhaps you didn’t notice. You may have already guessed it was not the Conservatives.

Most of the media did not even report it, or mentioned it only in a somewhat “eyes-rolling upwards” manner, as if the Liberal Democrats had traded their dove symbol for a cannabis leaf. Editors may have thought the issue of drugs had had plenty of coverage recently-particularly after last week’s bike shed giggles about George Osborne’s alleged party antics twenty years ago.

But the Liberal Democrats have passed into party policy issues that the other main parties dare not even discuss with any discernible candour. Labour and the Conservatives prefer to deploy a patchwork of cliché, hearsay, and cod psychology and deny there is a problem with the way we tackle the problem of drugs. In the meantime, the Lib-Dems have endorsed the abolition of possession offences, a controlled cannabis market, heroin prescribing clinics, and a wholesale review of the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

There was also a recurring theme raised in the debate on Sunday where several delegates stressed the primacy of scientific evidence in determining policy. They also offered support to the beleaguered Advisory Council on the Misuse on Drugs, like acknowledging with sad regret the relegation of a great football club. Admittedly, the Liberal Democrats may have chosen the point when their popularity is at its nadir to be so brave. Indeed, the proposer of the motion, Ewan Hoyle, made it explicit that the reason for total intransigence by Labour and Conservatives was “pure cowardice.”  So by implication the Lib-Dems are now the fearless few.

Senior backbencher, Tom Brake, said after the debate, “Our current drug policy is costly, and ineffective, and it is the poor and marginalised who suffer the most. Liberal Democrats want to ensure the Government has a clear focus on prevention and reducing harm. This means moving away from criminalising the vulnerable.”

MPs, MEPs, and councillors were willing to express their views however the entire front bench suddenly found they had very pressing plans elsewhere simultaneous to the debate. In any event, Liberal Democrat ministers do not hold any of the strategic posts in the Home Office or Department of Health where drug policy is forged.

After many scientists, senior police officers, QCs, and academics have grasped the urgent need for reforming drug law we now see the sphere of influence spreading increasingly into the political world. It is another small but significant baby step towards amending our antediluvian drug laws.

The possession offence seems a good candidate for instigating significant and measurable change. Over 100,000 people are arrested for possession offences each year, so the much-heralded “deterrent effect” appears almost non-existent. Each criminal record can harm employment prospects and visa applications-such long-lasting sanctions are simply not proportionate for using rather than selling a drug.

The Met policy on cannabis possession, like that of other forces, already stipulates there should be a “presumption against arrest” for adults. However the new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has already stated his preference for a “zero tolerance” approach to all levels of criminal activity, which on the face of it looks incompatible with those guidelines.

However, other bastions of conservatism have also showed a shift in attitude on drug use. The Football Association was harangued by Channel 4’s Dispatches into revealing the names of players who had failed tests for recreational drugs. We expected a familiar tale of opaqueness and unaccountability from the mandarins of football. But instead the FA responded by saying most of the miscreants were teenagers who had made a mistake and did not deserve to be punished their whole lives. Admittedly the FA’s greater goal may be to protect clubs’ commercial interests. Nevertheless their mature and compassionate outlook to young players’ welfare should be applauded.

Naturally the greatest barrier to change is still the formidable Conservative Party. Theresa May has not given the merest indication of a more flexible policy outlook from the Home Office. Many MPs may suppress their disquiet over the failure of drugs policy. Not so Charles Walker MP (Broxbourne). He adopted a withering tone when he called the Lib-Dems’ motion simply a “stupid idea.”

The Lib-Dems’ suggestion is actually fairly modest in establishing a review body to look at the merits of addressing possession offenders before a Portuguese style panel which would decide on treatment, education, and civil penalties. The Portugal model looks administrative and expensive–more appropriate for users of the more addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine than for the occasional spliff smoker.

But there is no doubting its successes. Drug deaths in Portugal fell dramatically following decriminalisation in 2001. In 1999, there were over 350 deaths from illegal substances, which fell to about 150 in just five years. The suggestion from the reactionary forces that the country would attract drug tourism proved to be a social myth. Prevalence for all major drugs is considerably lower than in the UK.

Roger Howard, Chief Executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission, said, “There is understandable worry that removing criminal penalties for simple possession might lead to increase usage. But the evidence from other countries suggests there would be no great surge in use. It is not so much the law that changes behaviour but rather social and cultural factors. In the UK we have seen a steady decline in cannabis use over the past 10 years, despite various changes in the law and policing practice. The evidence from other countries suggests it is possible to decriminalise simple possession without a surge in drug use.”

So the Lib-Dems have accepted with barely a murmur, policies that send other parties into a blue funk. This conference vote contrasted with Paddy Ashdown’s histrionics in 1993 when the grassroots voted for a Royal Commission on drugs. The result prompted Paddy to storm off the stage having scuppered his attempts to portray the Lib-Dems’ image as less sandal and more business suit.

But now, for this party, the panic is over.

Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist and government consultant. He is a former secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and formerly head of drug legislation at the Home Office.