Hung parliaments could break Labour-Tory stranglehold on drug policy

Support for the reform of drugs laws continues to grow
Support for the reform of drugs laws continues to grow
Ian Dunt By

As May approaches, drug reformers have been war-gaming the various post-election scenarios and the signs point to a possibility of real progress.

As ever, the era of hung parliaments opens up avenues for policy agendas which were previously considered way too radical to get a proper hearing. But it's increasingly hard to imagine the Tories or Labour governing alone anytime soon and that presents real opportunities for drug law reformers.

Labour is still overwhelmingly opposed to drug reform. Ed Miliband is not personally interested in it and the majority of the party remains instinctively opposed. When Green MP Caroline Lucas managed to secure a Commons debate on drug laws in October last year, Labour's position was noticeable for its absence. Shadow Home Office minister Diane Johnson did a lot of on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that posturing and little else. But even that response was telling. Back in the day, Labour would have come down like a ton of bricks on even the suggestion of liberalisation.

The team at Transform, who take a dispassionate, strategic view of how to press for reform, are very optimistic about multi-party politics. They see that drugs could play a key role in coalition formation – or confidence and supply – with the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

The Lib Dems are now firmly committed to reform and have taken a brave stand on the issue. It may be an easy way to differentiate themselves from the main parties, but it still takes considerable courage for a party to proudly adopt a liberal position on drugs and Nick Clegg's team deserve credit for doing so. After having gone so far publicly, they'll feel pressured to make a royal commission on drugs part of any coalition negotiation.

The SNP want drug policy to be devolved to Scotland. Showing England that the world does not fall apart when you regulate drugs would be a very useful tonic for the doom mongering which usually greets talk of drug law reform. Even without coalition negotiations, the SNP may initiate a review in Scotland on drug policy which would build pressure for reform or devolved powers.

Even the Conservatives aren't immune from calls for drug law reform. Last year's debate saw several of them stand up and be counted, including Robert Syms, Bob Stewart and Zac Goldsmith. As Syms said:

"Contrary to press reports, there are many of us on these benches, the Conservative benches, that believe in evidence-based reform to have a more effective policy in dealing with the scourge of drugs."

But any coalition deal between the Tories and Ukip would be unhelpful. Even though Nigel Farage and Mark Reckless are open to drug reform, neither intends to speak much about it for fear of alienating the party's core vote. Any pressure on the Tories will come from the Lib Dems.

But what kind of party will they be putting pressure on? That all depends on who succeeds Cameron. If it's Theresa May, progress seems unlikely. She's never strayed from a hard position against drugs and her close alliance with Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail means she's unlikely to in the near future. Gordon Brown reclassified cannabis due to his relationship with Dacre. May will also go out of her way to maintain the loyalty of a newspaper which offers her considerable internal advantage in the Tory party.


Things are somewhat different if one imagines a Boris Johnson-led party. One suspects he is more naturally inclined to reform and he is certainly less dependent on the Mail for shoring up his internal support.

Taken alone, these party political manoeuvrings wouldn't add up to much. But they take place against an international context which applies quite substantial pressure on the UK to reform.

Chief among these is the disintegration of the international legal system on drug prohibition. The US used to take the role of world policeman, enforcing the UN Convention which mandated countries' drug laws and prevented them experimenting with less harmful alternatives. Now it is reconsidering its position, after several of its states started reforming their own drug laws. The US position is to promote a new flexible interpretation of the convention which insists it allows countries to decriminalise and even legalise drugs.

The UK position on this is not clear. When the home secretary was asked about it she answered a different question – either evasively or due to ignorance, it's not clear. Home Office statements are without content. But it seems very likely that the UK will do as it always does on the world stage and back the US position. The Labour/Tory position that legal regulation is irresponsible and banned under UN Conventions will be undermined.

Meanwhile, the UK government will be trying to secure profitable trade relations with Latin American states. The focus on improving Britain's profile in developing markets will be a key part of the UK's trade policy, regardless of who forms the next government. The continued decline in demand from Europe multiplies the incentive.
This is part of the reason ministers have spent so long wooing Mexican president Pena Nieto and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. As these trade partners become more important their requests of British support for reform will carry more weight.

At home, the political climate is also rapidly changing. Polls show a majority of the public now support cannabis law reform and two-thirds support a review into drug laws – across party lines, across newspaper readership. The Daly Mail chooses not to believe the polling, but the Sun does. It has called for a review. MPs noted that change of heart with considerable interest

The Home Office, due to the diligent and under-credited work of Norman Baker, has published a report showing its own policies have not worked. With US states, including California, joining countries like Spain and Portugal in reforming drug laws, British tourists will soon have seen first-hand that you can adopt a more liberal approach without the world going to hell in a hand basket. Public support for change will continue to grow.

Labour and the Tories' deafness to arguments for reform is, of course, irritating, illiterate and irresponsible and their stranglehold on the debate has done this country a disservice. But the stars are aligned for a change in policy. The era of hung parliaments could prove profoundly beneficial for those seeking reform.

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