Pivotal moment for drug reform as Lib Dems ponder full decriminalisation

The Lib Dems have a long tradition of evidence-based drugs policy
The Lib Dems have a long tradition of evidence-based drugs policy

By Ian Dunt

Drug reform advocates could be about to secure a significant victory in their campaign to liberalise the law after a Liberal Democrat motion for full decriminalisation was submitted.

The party is likely to overwhelmingly back the motion to establish a panel to urgently consider the decriminalisation of personal drug use at its conference this autumn.

The move would likely prompt friction with the Lib Dems' Conservative coalition partners, whose rank-and-file membership are strongly opposed to any change to drug laws. The party would need Conservative support before the panel could be established.

David Cameron's record as a backbencher was distinctly liberal when it came to drug reform. He called for heroin 'shooting rooms' and a public health approach to drug use before taking the leadership.

Drug liberalisation views are surprisingly popular in Westminster circles, but it has been considered politically impossible for several years, mostly due to fear of the tabloid reaction and the views of 'middle-England' voters.

Former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth quickly came out against the "disaster" of drug regulation after leaving his front bench position.

Nick Clegg is understood to be distinctly relaxed about the motion, however, suggesting the Lib Dem leadership will not back down in the event of a yes vote.

There is "increasing evidence that the UK's drugs policy is not only ineffective and not cost-effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised", the motion reads.

"Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and by a drug habit, and... the priority for those addicted to all substances must be healthcare, education and rehabilitation, not punishment.

"One of the key barriers to developing better drugs policy has been the previous Labour government's persistent refusal to take on board scientific advice, and the absence of an overall evaluative framework of the UK's drugs strategy."

The demand comes amid unparalleled change internationally on drug laws, with several highly-respected figures and institutions calling for a more liberal policy on narcotics.

The Global Commission on Drugs Police, headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan recently called for world governments to consider regulating the drug trade.

Under decriminalisation, people caught with drugs would no longer be given fines or jail sentences but rather treatment and counselling. Dealers would still face the current legal penalties, however.

A similar policy was recently adopted in Portugal, and led to surprising results, with some sources suggesting cannabis use has decreased by 50%.

The Lib Dems have a long track record of an evidence-based policy on drugs and called for the legalisation of cannabis in 2002. But with the party now in power, their vote is likely to play a much more significant role in the public debate.

The motion will be put forward by Ewan Hoyle, founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, and backed by Lib Dem MEP Sir Graham Watson.


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