It was a remarkable show of unity. In the first major Commons debate on drug laws for a generation, MPs buried their political differences to back a fresh look at Britain’s 43-year-old legislation.
Among those the strongest voices was the Liberal Democrat crime reduction minister, Norman Baker, who has made reform of drugs laws a personal crusade. He asserted that the national conversation over drugs legislation has reached a crucial turning-point.
“We can no longer rely on the stonewalling that we have so often had about drugs policy,” he said. “There are genuine debates to be had about the way forward.”
He was speaking at the end of the Commons debate initiated by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, with cross-party support.
Ms Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “Despite all the accusations thrown at those in favour of drug policy reform, the bottom line is that this is not about being pro-drugs. It’s about saving lives. “No one now buys alcohol in unmarked bottles from the back of a pub but for 40 years we have left our children to do exactly that with drugs.
“There is no denying drug misuse has the potential to wreck lives, but surely it is time to be honest about the damage caused by the drug laws, which can cause a proliferation of criminality and public harm.”
She was lauded by Mike Thornton, the Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh, who told Ms Lucas: “The only people the current policy really benefits are the drug lords. If your policies were realised, it would put those people out of business for good.”
Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, also praised Ms Lucas’s “extraordinary” petition calling for a fresh look at drugs laws. “I understand that 20 per cent of people who have taken heroin for the first time say they got it for the first time in jail,” he said. “If they can’t control it in jail, how on earth are we supposed to control it on our streets?”
While it’s backbench Conservatives who are usually cast as the opponents to liberalisation, that was not the picture today. Robert Syms, the Tory MP for Poole, said: “There are many of us on the Conservative benches that believe in evidence-based reform.”
His party colleague Crispin Blunt, a former Justice minister, agreed. “There are examples all over the world of much more enlightened policies on drugs,” he said. “Portugal and the Czech Republic have been cited, and a number of American states have changed their policies on cannabis.”
Mr Blunt said he found it “modestly depressing” that David Cameron had changed his approach to drugs legislation. He said ministers had dared not raised the issue after the 2010 election.
“We have been frightened of the tabloid press, and we have seen what they did to the Liberal Democrat party as a result of some of its policies in this area.”
He was supported by Labour’s Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, in calling for a Royal Commission to put forward an alternative to what Mr Blunt called the “utterly disastrous policy of prohibition”.
The former Tory Cabinet minister Peter Lilley called for the legalisation of cannabis while still banning the sale to minors and outlawing its consumption in public place.
He said: “Because the sale of cannabis is illegal we drive soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers.”
The Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, described the Home Office research as the “first intelligent document in 43 years from the Government” on drugs, while the Lib Dems’ Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge, said: “The so-called war on drugs has simply not worked.”
The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons health select committee, spoke of the dangers of cannabis, but said she wanted to see the “longer-term results” of the recent legislation of marijuana in the US states of Washington and Colorado. “If I can see clear evidence of harm reduction, I will be completely changing my approach to this,” Dr Wollaston said.
And Bob Stewart, the Tory MP for Beckenham, offered a reflection from his life outside politics. “As a commanding officer in the Army, I had far too often to rid myself and the Army of outstanding young men because they had just touched a drug,” he said.
There was one lone voice against liberalisation, however, and that was from the Labour side. Diana Johnson, the shadow Home Office minister, said: “I am not so sure I agree... that the status quo is actually failing. Drug related deaths in the under-30s have halved in a decade and getting people into drug treatment, the assessment has been done that it’s prevented 4.9 million crimes being committed, saving the economy £960m.”
Liberal to conservative: Cameron’s drugs U-turn
David Cameron’s views on drug laws have undergone a dramatic transformation in a decade.
As a new MP in 2002, he said there was a “powerful argument” for legalising heroin and said it was “baffling” the Labour government was not considering the case for decriminalisation.
Three years later, he signed a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report arguing for the United Nations to consider legalising drugs and that heroin addicts should be provided with legal “shooting galleries” and prescribed opiates. The report also said it would be “disappointing” if radical options on the law on cannabis were not examined and called for ecstasy to be downgraded.
During the 2005 leadership campaign – in which he refused to be drawn on his personal drug experience – Mr Cameron said: “Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.”
By the time of the 2010 general election, his party’s manifesto had no mention of drug law reform. Today, the Prime Minister insists there is no need to change the UK’s approach, as his policies are succeeding.