Comment: Lib Dems lead the way on drug policy

Comment: Lib Dems lead the way on drug policy

With a conference vote this weekend, the Lib Dems have a chance to face down tabloid outrage.

By Martin Powell

The Lib Dems have long held the most reasonable, evidence based drug policy of the three biggest UK parties and, if passed, their latest drugs motion would build on that history in grand style.

At its heart is a call for a rather dull sounding 'impact assessment' of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) by an independent panel, to compare all the costs and benefits of the current approach to drugs with alternatives, such as Portuguese style decriminalisation of possession, and models of legal regulation including for cannabis, and Swiss-style heroin prescription. This is an eminently sensible approach that would allow future drug policy to be based on evidence of what works, rather than political rhetoric or tabloid fever.

But make no mistake – it would be truly groundbreaking. Firstly, none of the many previous reviews of drug policy have done this kind of comprehensive comparison (in the US, the drug czar's office is actually banned from doing research that might show benefits from legal regulation). Secondly, it would also be far harder to ignore because it would have been government initiated, sprung from Lib Dem party policy and of huge public interest, like the recent banking review.

Yet an impact assessment of this kind is not radical – it is the gold-standard approach for assessing public policy the world over. In fact, if the MDA were introduced today one would be required in advance of enactment and after three to five years to see if it is actually doing what it was intended to.

This has been a requirement for all Acts of parliament since 2005 for the very good reason that laws often have unintended consequences, and it makes sense to assess whether they outweigh the benefits. And if there is one thing everyone agrees about in drug policy it is that the MDA (and similar legislation in other countries) was not intended to create a huge criminal market; undermine international development and security; increase health harms including HIV/AIDS; promote stigma and discrimination; lead to deforestation and pollution, and undermine human rights all over the globe (see for details). Yet even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which oversees the system of global prohibition, acknowledges it has created all these "unintended consequences".

Would such an impact assessment be possible? Despite what the current and last government have said, yes it would be – which is why the European Commission is starting one itself, looking at different approaches to controlling new synthetic drugs – so-called ('legal highs'). What if there are gaps in the research base? Then one of the key things an impact assessment can do is identify them and provide guidance in prioritising which gaps should be filled first, and which are not crucial to forming an overall conclusion. That is why an impact assessment approach is endorsed by a range of NGOs and academics from various sectors affected by drug policy, and politicians from all parties, including the Conservative peer and professor of government Lord Norton, who was the prime mover in making impact assessments obligatory for all new Acts. Impact assessments may not make for great sound bites or lurid tabloid headlines, but they do result in better policy, and at a time of severe cuts, there is a pressing need to ensure all public spending is as effective as possible.

This motion is also timely. Globally, the tide has turned, and ever more prominent statesmen and women are calling for an end to the failed war on drugs and its replacement with models of legal regulation based on science, public health and human rights principles. Those voices now include the former secretary-general of the UN Kofi Annan, seven former presidents, including from the US, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Switzerland and the current prime minister of Greece, not to mention senior doctors, police, academics and religious leaders. In response, the Tory and Labour frontbenches continue shouting 'drugs are bad for you, ban them' whilst refusing to explore different approaches – even when shown to work in other countries. That is not principled leadership and it looks increasingly irresponsible.

The Lib Dem motion is only part of a much broader, growing global campaign for a full review of the war on drugs, and all the alternatives. The 'War on Drugs: Count the Costs' project was launched this year to mark the 50th Anniversary of the UN Convention that underpins the current approach. It is bringing together groups and individuals from every sector affected by drugs, and every region. We have a range of views on what we should do about drugs, but a shared commitment to make the world a safer, healthier place. As a result we also share one simple aim – let's count the costs of the war on drugs and explore the alternatives, so we can base drug policy on evidence of what works. And an Impact Assessment of UK Misuse of Drugs Act would be an excellent place to start.

Martin Powell, head of campaigns at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, was an analytical chemist for the French nuclear industry before working for a range of charities in Latin America and the UK, including Friends of the Earth, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and the World Development Movement, including as co-chair of the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

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