Politicians can't afford to look tough anymore — we need to embrace drugs reform

Parliament has finally acknowledged what many of us have known all along - prohibition doesn't work

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The Independent Online

Last week saw a truly remarkable change in Parliament's attitude to drugs policy.

Many of us have known for ages that our current approach isn't working. Despite 40 years of a prohibitionist, criminal justice led approach, millions of people continue to take illegal drugs every year, hundreds of thousands have a serious drug problem, and there are about 2,000 drug related deaths every year. Meanwhile, drug barons and organised crime gangs have continued to profit massively.

But last week myself and Caroline Lucas managed to secure a full debate about drugs policy in the House of Commons Chamber - the first of its kind in a generation. Just having the debate forced the Home Secretary to finally allow the publication of the International Comparator Study which looked at drugs policy around the world.

This report was a recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee, on which I serve, and had been worked on by Jeremy Browne and Norman Baker, the two Lib Dem Drugs Ministers. Despite the fact that all it did was look at the realities of drugs policy around the world, the Home Secretary had blocked it for months on end, and stripped sections out of it. She was clearly keen to avoid people knowing the truth about what the facts tell us.

Even trimmed down, it was a momentous report. It tore out the heart of the argument proposed by those who want to continue with the prohibitionist status quo.

What the study showed was that there was no evidence that drug use in a country is related to "tough" the law are. In other words, passing draconian laws against drugs does not in fact reduce drugs usage - although it costs more money, and can make people less safe by forcing more of the trade underground. This represented a huge blow to the current approach which assumes that a prohibitionist strategy works to reduce usage.


Crucially too, the report demonstrated there are alternative approaches which work much better than ours. In Portugal, where the government has in the past decade begun to treat drug use as a health problem rather than a crime, the results have been extremely positive. Usage is down, and the number of deaths is down, as are the number of drug users contracting serious illnesses, like HIV/AIDS. The burden on the criminal justice system has reduced too - saving the taxpayer crucial money, which can then be spent on treatment for those who need it.

My party, the Liberal Democrats, having been pushing for reform for a long time - as have a small handful of others, such as the veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn. We want to see an approach that recognises that drugs are harmful, whether they are legal or illegal, and seeks to reduce that harm. The evidence shows that the best way to achieve that is through reform, and so we should move to something like the Portuguese model. However, to date we have faced strenuous opposition from the Labour and Tory frontbenches, who insist on trying to look tough.

However, we made real progress in the debate. With one exception, every single speaker spoke out in favour of reform. There were nuances as to the details of the reforms needed but clear agreement that we need to listen to the evidence and change our approach. Despite the hostility of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister - a hostility that is odd, given that in opposition the PM called for reform, and even supported look at options such as legalisation and regulation - every Tory MP who came to speak disagreed with them, and supported our approach.

The only dissenting voice during the debate was, sadly, Labour's Shadow Minister. She was the only person who wanted to argue for the existing failed policy, and did a spectacularly poor job of justifying it. So regressive and counter-intuitive was her approach that a fellow Labour MP stated she [did] “not know what world she [the Shadow Minister] is living in.” In contrast, Norman Baker, then the Drugs Minister, spoke compellingly for the need for an improved policy.

Our motion passed unanimously. The Shadow Minister, and any other MPs who continue to want to stick with the status quo, clearly did not have enough courage in their convictions to vote against it.

So now Parliament has voted clearly that there is 'a growing consensus that the current enforcement led approach is not working' and that 'Government is spending around £3 billion a year on a policy that is often self-defeating'. We have explicitly demanded an independent analysis of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Parliament has spoken. We now need Labour and the Tories to listen and act, as Liberal Democrats have been doing for years. We need to continue pushing for what is right, for what will help make our communities safer and allow people to break vicious cycles of addiction.