Knives out for Clegg as anti-drugs lobby targets Lib Dems

Clegg's drug reform campaign has seen him targeted by mid-market tabloids and Conservative-supported think tanks
Clegg's drug reform campaign has seen him targeted by mid-market tabloids and Conservative-supported think tanks
Ian Dunt By

Article updated - see below

Nick Clegg and Virgin boss Richard Branson will do a joint press conference today in which they'll call for those caught with drugs when they're young not to have their career prospects ruined by having to mention it in future job applications.

The Lib Dem leader is keen to use his drug policy to win back votes from young people he may have lost over tuition fees, but there's a price to be paid for that and the Daily Mail and right-wing think tanks are intent on making sure he pays it.

He'll say:


"We know that around one third of British adults have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime. For many, it's something you try when you're young then grow out of. In this country, if you're a young person – say, out at a club with friends – and you get arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs, it's likely you'll end up with a criminal record. That means this stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it's as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even a taxi driver."

But even this eminently sensible proposition has seen the knives come out for the Lib Dem leader. Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) timed a report to come out this morning suggesting 69% of charities were concerned by the prospect of the government decriminalising cannabis.

Chief executive Christian Guy suggested calls for drug law reform came from our old friend The Liberal Elite.

Of course, charities who work in deprived areas are likely to say this. They would say similar things about alcohol and gambling, but that does not mean they should be banned. No-one is suggesting drug addiction improves the situation of those in poverty. Clegg is merely arguing that ruining the career prospects of someone caught with some weed when they're 16 does little to alleviate that situation.

Nevertheless, the report gave the Mail a news hook to base its Clegg coverage on, saying the deputy prime minister's pledge came "despite charities warning the move will wreck thousands of lives" and that "experts condemned the move".

They wheeled out Mary Brett, a trustee of Cannabis Skunk Sense, possibly the worst-named pressure group in modern Britain, to say his call for reform contradicted his concern for mental health:

"Nick Clegg demonstrates complete ignorance of the facts on drugs like cannabis and skunk. There is overwhelming evidence of a link between skunk and mental health problems like psychosis and schizophrenia. If you decriminalise or legalise drugs then children will think it is okay to do, that it is safe. It is deeply irresponsible."

And to top things off it referred back to last month's study possibly showing a link between skunk and psychosis.

Any sensible reading of that report would have shown the precise opposite of Brett's view. Skunk is a direct result of prohibition, because cannabis follows the economic imperatives of black markets by focusing on the most potent, high yield, high profit version of the product. It also showed that other forms of cannabis, such as hash, seem to be psychologically harmless.

The attacks will continue as the push for drug law reform gains greater prominence and respectability. After all, today's lunchtime event is remarkable partly for how unremarkable it is. This is the deputy prime minister doing a joint press conference with Britain's most famous businessman to call for the de facto decriminalisation of all drugs. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable. The fact changes are happening at such a rapid pace shocks the remaining supporters of the drug war.

But it is telling how few allies those critics can count on. The Mail is the only major paper left fighting for the war on drugs, now that the Sun has changed course. It's own coverage of the event only criticises Clegg for his poll ratings, rather than the policy itself. Once upon a time it would have gone to town on him and made him look a lunatic. Even the Conservatives don't have the motivation to go gunning for him.

This nervy, isolated backlash can be seen internationally as well. Yesterday, the International Narcotics Control Board, the UN's thug enforcer for global anti-drug laws, launched a remarkable broadside against the US for daring to allow its states a free vote on cannabis laws.

Its 2014 report charted how quickly the reality on the ground is changing in the US, before stating:

"The board reiterates its concern that action by the government to date with regard to the legalisation of the production, sale and distribution of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington does not meet the requirements of the international drug control treaties.

"In particular, the 1961 Convention as amended, establishes that the parties to the [UN Convention on drugs] should take such legislative and administrative measures as may be necessary 'to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs'. This provision is strictly binding and not subject to flexible interpretation. In addition, the Convention establishes that states parties have 'to give effect to and carry out the provisions of this Convention within their own territories'. This provision also applies to states with federal structures."

This is the standard bullying technique the board utilises, where a body with a non-existent democratic mandate deigns to lecture democratic countries on the free votes of their citizens.

The board then goes on to praise Mexico in the most gushing terms for taking "substantial measures to implement the board's recommendations", "investigating and prosecuting unlawful conduct" and thwarting "the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in drugs in the country, including the eradication of large quantities of illicit cannabis and opium poppy crops".

It's worth taking a moment to dwell on what Mexico has accomplished for its countrymen by following the International Narcotics Control Board's demands. It entered into a nine-year drug war which has claimed 100,000 lives and seen it become a borderline failed state. In the last few months alone, two horrific massacres and a mass disappearance were connected to law enforcement agencies tasked with battling drugs.

In September, police and commandos left six young people dead and 43 students missing after an ambush, nearly half of whom were last seen in police custody. More recently, 28 semi-burned bodies were discovered in a mass grave – possibly the bodies of the students. The attack is thought to have been the result of cartels conspiring with politicians.

That massacre followed the mass killing of 22 young people in Tatlaya, Mexico state, in June. Fresh evidence suggests soldiers executed the young people.

The drugs war in Mexico did not, as you may have guessed, wipe out drugs. It simply made the trade more violent by increasing competition between gangs and forged alliances between the police, the military, politicians and the cartels.

This is the situation the International Narcotics Control Board saw fit to celebrate in Mexico.

It then goes on to state, seemingly without any irony:

"The international drug control conventions are often portrayed by their detractors as instruments of prohibition and punishment. Even the most cursory reading of these important documents reveals such an interpretation to be misguided. The goal of the United Nations legal framework on drugs is the safeguarding of the health and welfare of humankind."

The board is confused for the same reason the Mail and the Centre for Social Justice and Mary Brett are confused. It believes it can wipe out drug use. Despite half a century of evidence to the contrary, it thinks one more police crackdown, one more tough-on-drugs political manifesto, will somehow stop humans doing what they have been doing for the entirety of their time on Earth.

For them, the question is still: 'How do you stop people doing drugs?' They have not yet realised that the only sensible question to ask is: 'How do you minimise the harms which emerge when people do drugs?'

They may seem effective to those who engage in them, but these comparatively small and isolated attacks show just how irrelevant the anti-drugs lobby has become.

Update 13:18 GMT

As the event took place the Liberal Democrats confirmed the following policies for their manifesto:

  • Adopt the approach used in Portugal where those who are arrested for possession of drugs for personal use are diverted into treatment, education or civil penalties that do not attract a criminal record.
  • As a first step towards reforming the system, legislate to end the use of imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use, diverting resources towards tackling organised drug crime instead.
  • Continue to apply severe penalties to those who manufacture, import or deal in illegal drugs, and clamp down on those who produce and sell unregulated chemical highs.
  • Establish a review to assess the effectiveness of the cannabis legalisation experiments in the United States and Uruguay in relation to public health and criminal activity.
  • Legislate to make the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs independent in setting the classification of drugs, while remaining accountable to Parliament and the wider public.
  • Enable doctors to prescribe cannabis for medicinal use.
  • Put the Department of Health rather than the Home Office in charge of drug policy.

Speaking at the event, Clegg said:

“Drugs reform, like prison reform, is one of those issues that political parties always talk big about in opposition, only to fall silent and do nothing in Government. Not the Liberal Democrats. As part of the Coalition Government, we’ve continued to fight for change. We believe the time for action on drugs reform is now.

“The UK and its partners must acknowledge that the 'War on Drugs' hasn't worked. Despite the decades of tough talking and billions of dollars spent in waging this war, the global drug problem and the criminal markets that underpin it remain all but untouched by our enforcement efforts.

“I’m incredibly frustrated that, after five years in Coalition, we cannot take our work to its logical conclusion – just because the Tories are scared of being branded soft on drugs. It’s time for the Conservatives and Labour to realise that the world has moved on, reform is no longer a taboo subject and voters expect politicians to deliver results based on solid evidence, not overblown rhetoric.

“If you’re anti-drugs, as I am, then you have a responsibility to look at the evidence of what actually works to reduce drug harm. At the moment, the level of harm to individuals and communities – here and around the world – is still unacceptably high. We need to get a grip on this problem. So, if you’re anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform.

“What we now need is brave political leadership to openly acknowledge that new ways of controlling illegal drug markets and discouraging use are required.

“So, my challenge today for politicians, the press and the public is to accept the overwhelming evidence that things are not working, that politicians are letting down the victims of the drugs trade by failing to engage with the evidence.

“Talking tough while acting weak may be tempting, but it no longer fools anyone.  It is time to commit to a radically smarter approach to tackle this problem head-on.

“The first step is to recognise that drug use is primarily a health issue. That’s why, in our manifesto, the Liberal Democrats will commit to move the responsibility for drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health. Tackling supply is a matter for the police so that will stay with the Home Office. But reducing demand and minimising harm are questions of public health.

“Secondly, we will re-focus resources away from prosecuting people whose only crime is that they have used drugs, or are addicted to drugs. The international evidence very clearly shows that handing out criminal records to users does nothing to reduce overall levels of drugs use.

“We know that around one third of British adults have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime, with approximately one in five 16-24 year olds taking drugs in the last year alone. For many, it’s something you try when you’re young then grow out of.

“But, in this country, if you’re a young person – say out at a club with friends – and you get arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs, it’s likely you’ll end up with a criminal record. That means this stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it’s as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even taxi-driver.

“What would you do? If this was your child and you found those drugs would you go to a doctor or police officer to help them? I think nearly all of us would call the health expert. And, in the same way, I just don’t think it’s right for us as a society to write off these young people who haven’t hurt anyone else, just made the wrong choice, so early. We need to put an end to this ludicrous situation. Our focus should be on getting them the help they need, not punishment, so they can go on to realise their ambitions and make a positive contribution to society.

“That’s why the Lib-Dems believe these resources should instead be ploughed into smarter enforcement and greater availability of treatment.

“So we will develop diversionary programmes to take users out of the criminal justice system altogether, ensure that those who need treatment get it, and find more effective ways to reduce or end their drug use.

“I want a see a system where anyone who is arrested for possession of drugs for their own personal use gets either treatment (if they need it), education, or a civil fine.

“While we’re developing those interventions, I also think it’s important to make one specific change as early as possible. That is to end the nonsense of sending people to prison where the offence on the charge sheet is possession of small amounts of drugs for their personal use. These people need treatment, not punishment.

“Where we need to use the criminal law to protect the public we should do. For example, we have just introduced tougher new rules on drug driving, because getting behind the wheel under the influence of any psychoactive substance is a monumentally dangerous thing to do. And we've also made it clear that the current unregulated free for all around so-called 'legal highs' is putting people's health at risk, which is why I support closing down the shops that sell these chemicals.

“The time for change has come. We need political leaders to let go of the same old, safe language, to end the war on drugs and, instead, use their power to implement evidence-based policies that work.

“That’s how we save lives. It’s how we punish the pushers, not the users and the victims of drugs. It’s how we stop the violence, reduce addiction and secure the fairer, more peaceful and prosperous world we want.”

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