Public opinion is ready for a progressive view on drugs. The Lib Dems must not back down.
By Ewan Hoyle
The Liberal Democrats will debate drug policy at their party conference on Sunday afternoon. Such debates have been a source of considerable anxiety for the party leadership in the past, and have never led to policies that the party leadership has felt any pride in, never mind policies that had any chance of implementation by government.
There is a real sense, however, that things can be different this time. It is difficult to regard these proposals as 'soft on drugs' as they have been in the past. All of the motion's requests are demanding a careful assessment of available evidence focused on recommending policies that will be tougher than the ones we have now. I have no doubt that everyone wants the government to get tough on drugs by employing the policies that most effectively restrict the ability of drugs to cause harm both to individuals and the communities they live in. We all know that drugs are causing great amounts of harm. But we also recognise that the current laws we are employing to address the problem are also causing harm by criminalising otherwise law-abiding young people and abdicating responsibility for the multi-billion pound drug market to criminal gangs.
Those who have serious concerns about the measures discussed in this motion have clearly misunderstood the measures that I, as the motion's proposer, hope the government will consider. The model of legal regulation I favour for cannabis is for strictly government controlled cultivation and distribution and sale from pharmacists. This would only be permitted to over 18s who have received education on all the drug's potential harms and any attempts at advertising would be strictly prohibited. If we want to deliver the message that cannabis is harmful, surely that message is best delivered by a trained health professional every time someone seeks to purchase it.
Decriminalisation does not mean turning a blind eye to drug use. If we follow the Portuguese example it is my hope that the police will take more action, not less, when they encounter people in the possession of drugs, but that that action will result in people appearing before doctors or psychologists and not judges. Users and their families would be strongly encouraged to seek help when problems arise and would not be fearful of approaching services due to the threat of criminal sanction.
Heroin maintenance clinics shouldn't cause people to recoil at the thought of 'heroin on the NHS'. They should reflect on the families torn apart by drug abuse, the amount of crime committed by those for whom methadone just doesn't work, and the opportunity to undermine the dealers who want to get the next generation hooked in order to exploit their misery. The savings to government spending that would result could mean more investment on cancer drugs or other tabloid priorities, not less.
It is my hope that the Liberal Democrats will be fiercely proud of this debate and the policy I hope will result. Our democratic structure has allowed the party membership to set the agenda and to debate an issue of vital importance, an issue that hasn't been vetoed by concerns about reactionary tabloid hysteria. There is also a strong sense that the media tide is turning on this issue. So much so that the Conservatives and Labour might be wise not to try to stand in its way.
Ewan Hoyle is the Founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and is studying for an MSc in Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He also holds an MSc in Neuroscience from the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Based in Glasgow, he is seeking election to represent the Anderston and City ward in the council elections next May.
A version of this article has previously appeared in the Lib Dem party conference edition of the House Magazine.
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