UK government should abandon ‘just say no’ drug policy amid record fatal overdoses, say Labour MPs

'This government’s approach is lining the pockets of organised criminals while forcing taxpayers to live with the costs associated with drug abuse'

Mattha Busby
Tuesday 10 July 2018 15:45 BST
Jeff Smith holds up a message board at a Save the Children event in 2015. Jonathan Brady/PA Images
Jeff Smith holds up a message board at a Save the Children event in 2015. Jonathan Brady/PA Images

With the UK accounting for almost a third of all drug-related deaths in Europe, a group of Labour MPs are calling on the government to abandon its ‘just say no’ mantra in place of an evidence-based approach to harm reduction.

The Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform, which will launch tonight, shall provide a forum for Labour members to discuss the UK’s drug policy at a time when the opposition party is undergoing a full review of its approach.

They hope the party can seize the agenda and make the progressive case for reform of what campaigners deride as our outdated drug laws which are failing to prevent use and abuse while helping murderous drug gangs fund their activities.

Jeff Smith, a Labour MP who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, has condemned the government’s current policy which he says “plays into the hands of organised criminals”.

“This government’s approach is lining the pockets of organised criminals while forcing taxpayers to live with the costs associated with drug abuse and preventing vulnerable users from getting the support they need,” said the Manchester Withington MP, adding that drug policy in this country is “failing the people Labour exists to represent”.

“This year we’ve seen progressive drug policies implemented across Europe, and at a local level here in the UK, but now it’s time for national leadership on this issue.

“I’m looking forward to hearing from Labour members about how our party can seize this agenda and make the progressive case for reform of our outdated drug laws,” Mr Smith, who has previously led calls to legalise cannabis and decriminalise ecstasy, added.

The UK’s drug policy is in a state of unprecedented flux with the government recently announcing a review of the scheduling of cannabis and confirming it would not “stand in the way” of drug testing at festivals after two deaths at Mutiny festival in May.

Meanwhile, Canada recently became the first G7 country to legalise and regulate cannabis stoking calls from senior politicians William Hague and Ed Miliband for the UK to follow suit.

Police chiefs also weighed into the debate and stressed that the current set of laws governing how drugs are controlled are no longer fit for purpose.

“In my area of the West Midlands, half of all burglary, theft, shoplifting and robbery is committed by people suffering from serious addiction to heroin and crack cocaine,” said David Jamieson, Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands.

“Every three days here somebody dies from drug poisoning, while organised criminals are profiting from this misery.

“By changing our collective approach we can stop paying the price for failure and use some of that funding to support our under-pressure public services,” he added.

With the highest number of drug overdose deaths in Europe, 3,744 - up by almost half since 2012 - out of 8,441 across the continent, there are understandably calls for the UK to embrace some of the forward-thinking policies implemented in Portugal.

In 2001 policies to decriminalise all drugs were put into place and drug consumption facilities were introduced around the Iberian country, as part of a raft of measures to reduce harm - which had reached disturbing levels.

This radical approach, which treated drug users through a social, rather than a criminal, lens, saw overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime significantly fall. Perhaps surprisingly, drug use also fell.

The success of these policies left campaigners and experts in the UK frustrated at the stifling of progressive measures by government at a time when the British Medical Journal and the Royal College of Physicians have said they also support reform.

“The Home Office has actively blocked local areas from setting up drug consumption rooms which are proven to save lives, reduce blood-borne viruses, and make communities safer,” said Niamh Eastwood, the executive director at Release, a charity that provides advice on drugs law.

“Under the Conservatives, drug-related deaths are at an all-time high, with heroin related deaths dominating the figures, yet there has been no steps taken to implement policies that could save the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society. Not only has the current approach failed, but it is putting people’s lives at risk.”

Change, however, is afoot in parts of the country. Avon and Somerset Police recently took the landmark decision to allow The Loop to set up the UK’s first city centre drug safety testing service in Bristol, but campaigners say this is only the beginning of the adoption of a public health approach to drug policy.

The new Labour group will report to the national policy forum which helps shape party policy and they hope to be able to exert some influence on a party which recently signalled it would embrace some of the more progressive policies the Liberal Democrats have been championing for some years now.

In the wake of the mass outpouring of sympathy to Billy Caldwell, who was denied access to cannabis medicine that significantly ameliorated his intractable epilepsy until home secretary Sajid Javid relented and gave permission for it to be administered, the party announced a full review of its policies around drugs legislation.

"The government’s approach to drugs since they took office in 2010 – ideological and plagued with irresponsible cuts,” a party statement said. "The UK now has the highest recorded level of mortality from drugs misuse since records began.

"There is nothing more important than preserving the life of our citizens. Our current approach to drugs is simply not doing that.”

The Conservative Party directed requests for comment to the Home Office, who were yet to respond at the time of publication.

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