08 Sep Decriminalisation Is A Useful Stepping Stone Towards A Drugs Policy That Will Actually Work

Nick Clegg Libdem Leader

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Leader of the LibDems

So the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2015 election will likely call for the decriminalisation of possession of drugs. In fact it will go much further than that. See pages 22 – 24 of the crime and criminal justice policy paper ‘Doing What Works to Cut Crime‘ to be presented at this autumn’s party conference.

It suggests the adoption of a system like Portugal where those found in possession of drugs for personal use will be “diverted” into social and health care services rather than the criminal justice system. It also proposes that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) should cease to be merely advisory on drug classification and its recommendations should be mandatory. It also welcomes the introduction of legal regulation of cannabis in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay and promises real consideration of such reform if the evidence accumulates in favour.

However, if decriminalisation of drug possession isn’t followed up swiftly by legal regulation then it threatens even greater danger than prohibition.|

Most harms around drugs are not caused by the drugs themselves but because production and supply is vested in the hands of criminals. Decriminalisation does nothing to address this and could make things worse. The evidence is that reducing penalties for drugs does not increase use. However, the half way step of decriminalisation could lead to dealers becoming far more aggressive both in their sales techniques and enforcement of their ‘turf’.

Of course it would be very welcome that the oppressive injustice of punishing someone for possession of drugs would be stopped but what about street dealing, contaminated product, unknown strength/purity, destruction of rented property, electricity theft, violence, human trafficking, street crime to fund habits and easy access by children? These are the significant harms of drugs and completely overwhelm the few tragic but isolated incidents where use of drugs themselves causes harm.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which forms the basis of drugs policy in the UK, was intended to reduce the social harms of drugs, not the health harms. It says at the very beginning that it is about drugs “having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”. In fact, the health harms of so called ‘controlled drugs’ are relatively small. Very few people die or suffer lasting disability from drug use. Compared to deaths and disability from alcohol and tobacco use, the problem is insignificant. The numbers would be reduced even further if contaminated supply and uncertainty over strength and purity could be minimised. Even in the case of cannabis, the most widely used ‘controlled drug’, whatever misleading propaganda the drug warriors promote, the health harms are tiny and the risks to mental health are mythological rather than evidence-based.

Specifically on cannabis, present policy prevents the huge health benefits that it offers to those in chronic pain, cancer patients and those suffering from autoimmune diseases such as MS and Crohn’s. And would decriminalisation of possession mean that cultivation for personal use would no longer be an offence?

The significant harms around drugs and the real cost to our society can only be tackled by taking the market away from criminals, taking responsibility for it and regulating the supply of drugs in accordance with their potential for harm.

This is the real scandal of UK drugs policy – that it actually causes harm, that the pious scaremongering and hand wringing of supporters of prohibition are actually the problem and not the solution.