Friday, July 07, 2023

GUEST POST Abandoning the War on Drugs would bring Britain so many benefits

Lee Dargue says legalising and regulating currently illegal drugs would bring us benefits in all sorts of areas.

Politicians (and press officers) are always after policies that that can easily explain, that will attract the public, and bring tangible results.

How about a policy that will reduce:

  • crime (organised criminal gangs (OCGs), violent and sexual crime, burglary, theft, car crime), 
  • the number of knives and guns on our streets
  • street gangs
  • the exploitation of people of all ages (including via ‘county lines’)
  • health harms (to people and public health), thus reducing the strain on our health and care services.

whilst also increasing:

  • liberty for people who aren’t harming others
  • time for the police to spend on 'everyday' criminal matters in their neighbourhoods
  • safety and cleanliness of our streets and communities.

All of this could be achieved by the UK legalising and regulating currently illegal drugs. Note that I said reduce bad things and increase good things - it’s not a silver bullet for all these matters, but it is a single bullet to help with all of them.

The crime described is largely funded by the production, distribution, and supply of illicit drugs. The most well-known include cannabis, heroin, and crack (the most potent version of cocaine, which is smoked). 

The sale of these items produces vast amounts of money for individuals and OCGs, which also harming people who take them – largely because the products they take, being illegal, are subject to no quality control.

In all the elections I’ve ran in (Westminster, local and a European) I’ve bought up drug law reform campaigns, including my view that we should legalise currently illegal drugs. 

Aside from a few nervous people (who calm quickly when I chat with them after the event) the audience of any hustings either agrees or is largely dispassionate about the matter. There isn’t a howl of panic (we leave that to the “newspapers” that make up stories on drugs to worry their readers). 

Indeed, the only time I had someone shout at me was at my own Party’s conference in 2017, where, supporting a policy of legalising cannabis, I was accused of genocide in North Africa. Thankfully it was a lone view! 

So, despite not finding any horror, or even much disagreement to my proposals (even the usually panicked press were neutral or supportive when they reported on the aforementioned conference policy), why are most politicians reticent to promote the idea? 

For some, such as Labour and Tory frontbenchers, they cling to the outdated notion that the 'War on Drugs' is either going well (it isn’t) or that they must maintain their 'tough on crime' chest-beating stance. 

The War on Drugs, started by the most discredited - sorry, second most discredited - US President, Nixon, is steeped in racism and an authoritarian grasp of power, not the harm reduction and public health approaches we need (and that Britain had before we succumbed to international pressure) has been favoured by all governments since the introduction of the harm-inducing Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. 

The small glimmer of hope that liberals in coalition in 2010 could change the narrative was quashed, when Home Office minister Norman Baker quit in exasperation of the Theresa May-led department being too difficult to work in, where even discussion of matters like drug law reform were effectively outlawed. Baker asked simply that we review evidence, but this, par for the course, was too much for the Tory government. 

Since then, (now former) Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb, Labour MP Jeff Smith, and Conservative MP Crispin Blunt tried hard to keep drug law reform on the radar and others too. However, it’s largely still a taboo issue. 

More worryingly, the Lib Dems seem to have fallen silent on the matter – and there is an active policy of supporting a legalised, regulated market for cannabis. 

Whilst I’d like all readers to get on the bus of drug law reform, I urge the Lib Dems to reignite (no pun intended) their cannabis policy, for liberty, for public health and protection, and yes, even for politics - to tap into the growing number of voters who think it’s time we re-thought our country’s draconian, unworkable laws on prohibition.

Whilst I’ve focused on the political element here, there are many fantastic organisations that campaign and educate on drug law reform, and, at the known risk of leaving many out, I’d advise you to look out for Transform, Anyone’s Child, Release and LEAP for starters. 

The Neil Woods book (no, I don’t get kickbacks) Drug Wars is a great starter for all those wanting to learn more.

Lee Dargue is a Liberal Democrat activist from Birmingham. You can follow him on Twitter.


Jenny said...

Politicians like drug laws because the police can arrest villains for drug misuse rather than proving they have done wrong.

Matt Pennell said...

Great blog, thanks for posting Lee. As a former retail journalist I'd like to add that I support full legalisation of cannabis and that it should be sold down the same retail channels as tobacco and alcohol. This means you'd buy it from a kiosk in a supermarket where there is security and plenty of staff on the shop floor. This is preferable to it being sold in specialist dispensaries or via a backstreet greymarket. If big retail sells cannabis, the household names involved will be duty bound to make sure that it comes from a reputable source with all employment and health + safety laws adhered to. Legal, but heavily regulated and controlled, because of who is selling it.

Lee Dargue said...

Very much so, Jenny! The political approach is wanting to seem to be "tough on crime" yet it's the prohibition that causes the harm. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

A counter-view, if I may....

At a time when we know that the country is facing a mental health crisis, is it sensible to de-stigmatise cannabis when it is known to exacerbate so many mental health conditions?

Phil Beesley said...

It is wrong to construct an argument for drug law reform on the basis of reduced criminal behaviour.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the blaggers (violent criminals) who robbed vans carrying wages to factories found that their business model was undercut by cheque and electronic wage payments. They turned into the thugs who took over dealing drugs outside clubs and raves. They have been succeeded by gangs which, owing to television, are known as organised crime groups. If drug law is changed, organised criminal behaviour will change, but we should not assume positive change. Gangs will do something else.

Lee uses the expression "organised criminal gang"; it is a recognition that for some people criminality is occupational, what they do as a job.

We know that many people commit crime to pay for legal drugs -- alcohol and tobacco -- which diminishes the argument that so called low level crime (house breaking, street robbery, shoplifting) might go away.

Lee Dargue's drug list missed out most of the more common recreationals (speed, ecstasy, your uppers and downers). Lee Drague's list comprised powders and herbals. The most commonly consumed drugs (by mass?) are pills. A lot of those pills are prescription drugs which have gone astray.

Lee argues: "Note that I said reduce bad things and increase good things - it’s not a silver bullet for all these matters, but it is a single bullet to help with all of them."

I'm just not a believer. I want drug law reform in order to help people. I have higher expectations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reading and replying, Matt. Very much support regulation for the reasons you say - controlling quality and strength of product, as well as age restrictions. This won't, of course, totally eliminate a black market, but will create a safer supply.

Lee Dargue said...

Thanks for reading and your comments! We have people using cannabis anyway, so it's better to make sure that those who do have a product that is controlled in terms of strength and quality, whilst allowing for people to come forward more easily for help and support to reduce or end use if they wish to. THC (the psychoactive substance in cannabis) in small doses (prescribed, thus legalised and regulated) could potentially help treat psychosis, so it may have benefits - but not if solely left to the black market to supply. As with all drugs, use carries a risk, so we also need to make sure people have as much information and support as possible on the risks and help available.

Phil Beesley said...

Lee Dargue has replied to a few comments but somehow misses my comment about criminality, patterns of drug misuse etc. Did I have nothing to say?