The right election result could mean a change to our drug laws

But a hung parliament would make it difficult for the Tories or Labour to shut down the debate

Nigel Morris@NigelpMorris
Thursday 05 March 2015 18:03

The consensus in the polls – that Britain is heading for another hung parliament – is boosting the morale of supporters of drugs law reform.

Their biggest obstacle is the fierce resistance of Conservative and Labour leaderships, which fear that supporting a fresh look at Britain’s antiquated drugs legislation could be caricatured by opponents as going soft on the issue.

David Cameron and Theresa May insist that the current approach is working, pointing to figures showing drug use is edging down and ignoring the trend in some countries to a more liberal, health-based, approach to tackling addiction.

The Home Secretary even overrode her own advisers on drug misuse last year to add khat, the mild stimulant used by east African communities, to the banned list.

Labour remains as instinctively hostile to reform as when Gordon Brown also overruled scientific advice and upgraded cannabis from a class C to a class B substance. The party insists the popularity of stronger strains of cannabis such as skunk undermines the case for a new approach to the drug.

If either Mr Cameron or Ed Miliband wins an overall majority on 7 May, there will be little change to drugs legislation. But the parties which could determine where power lies after an uncertain election result take a fundamentally different attitude to the subject.

Nick Clegg this week underlined the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to breaking the “taboo” over drugs laws by backing the effective decriminalisation of use and possession of most illicit substances. The Ukip leader Nigel Farage agrees with him that the war on drugs is failing and has also called for a Royal Commission on the subject.

The Greens have a long-standing commitment to scrapping criminal penalties for cannabis use and for reform of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act which it argues has done more harm than good.

Plaid Cymru takes a similar stance, while the Scottish National Party wants the devolution of drugs laws to enable all decisions on drugs to be taken in Holyrood in a “coherent way”.

It is hard to envisage that any of these parties would make drugs a “red line” in power-sharing talks, although the Lib Dems might be tempted to do so given the vehemence with which Mr Clegg has spoken on the issue.

But a hung parliament – regardless of whether it produces a coalition or a minority administration – would make it difficult for the Tories or Labour to shut down the subject.

Without the Lib Dems over the last five years, there would not have been a Home Office study comparing Britain’s approach to drugs with the experience of other countries. The document, which concluded that a punitive approach did not reduce levels of abuse, could eventually prove a stepping-stone to new policy.

Were the SNP to win full devolution of drugs policy to Edinburgh in a hung parliament, that could prove even more significant if different regimes operated on either side of the border.

The smaller parties could also find unlikely allies in Labour and Tory ranks if they tried to push reform up the agenda, with backbenchers in both parties dissatisfied with their leaders’ uncompromising position.

Closing the first Commons debate on drugs for 43 years, the former Lib Dem minister Norman Baker insisted last year: “The genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in.”

But it could take another hung parliament to ensure the genie remains properly out.

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