Labour MPs Demand the Decriminalisation of Drug Possession

The party's drug policy reform group wants a 'new approach' to the war on drugs, including a possible legalised cannabis market in Britain.
September 22, 2020, 11:01pm
Labour MPs Demand 'New  Approach' to War On Drugs
Police detain a bong at a cannabis rally in London. Photo: Guy Corbishley/Alamy Stock Photo

A group of Labour MPs including three shadow ministers are backing a campaign which has called for the party to decriminalise drug possession and consider a legalised cannabis market in Britain.

In a report released today, the Labour drug policy reform group, formed in 2018 by MPs Jeff Smith and Thangam Debonnaire, who is now a minister, has urged the party to back police schemes to decriminalise drug possession, advocate an “explicitly public health-based approach to drug use” and “explore the potential” of a regulated cannabis market.

The recommendations are the result of a dozen public meetings across the UK and hundreds of consultations carried out by the group, supported by 15 Labour MPs and four members of the Scottish parliament.

The report calls for overdose antidote naloxone to be made more widely available, the roll out of heroin-assisted therapy across the UK, drug checking at festivals, decriminalising some cannabis cultivation, reducing drug stop-searches and the establishment of life-saving drug consumption rooms (DCRs), common in Canada, Denmark and elsewhere, and which Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet pledged to pilot if they won the election last year.

These measures would help begin to get a grip on the UK’s drug-related death crisis, the report said, with the number of people dying following drug use reaching record levels in 2018 with no suggestion of any change to the upward trajectory in this year’s delayed statistics.

It criticised the Tory government for underfunding harm reduction and drug treatment services and “actively blocking” efforts by local and devolved governments towards establishing new services. It said drug addiction and illegal drug markets cost the UK £20 billion per year in crime, ill health and economic disruption.

As the government drags its feet in stemming drug deaths, activist Peter Krykant has opened a mobile safer drug consumption room in a Ford Transit van in Glasgow – which VICE visited a fortnight ago – that has been backed by the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clarke and a number of MPs.

Manchester MP Smith declared it was time to address how Labour policy can better serve communities across the UK. “At this campaign’s heart is an acknowledgement that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and that Labour in government should take a new approach, implementing drug policies which prioritise public health and harm reduction, and are rooted in evidence,” he said.

Last year, Smith visited Teesside cannabis club just before MPs on the cross-party health and social care committee called for the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use.

“Prohibition doesn’t work,” he said at the time, as clouds of weed smoke wafted through the air. “A regulated market would de-incentivise illegal dealers, making it harder for children to access the drug. It would allow us to ensure that people knew what they were consuming, and that the products for sale contained safe levels of CBD and THC.”

Smith, a former DJ and longtime councillor, added that the ability to tax the vast amount of money which currently goes to criminals was a “massive argument” in favour of reform. “Not only does it currently all go to criminals, you could actually invest it in public services, drug education and health services,” he said.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham, told VICE she welcomed the proposals and said it was time for a “long overdue grown-up conversation” about UK drug policy due to the rising deaths.

“We should take a public health approach towards drugs which is evidence-based and outcomes-focused, diverting resources away from prosecution and enforcement and towards prevention to keep everyone safer,” she said.

Charlie Falconer, the shadow attorney general and patron of Labour’s drug policy reform group, issued a frank mea culpa in 2018 for his role in the war on drugs as a minister in Labour governments under Tony Blair and called for them to be legalised. Ahead of last year’s general election he told me: “In the UK, very many politicians are fearful of embracing a wholesale change to drug policy because they fear they would be characterised as soft and it would damage them politically.

“There are some politicians who do support a wholesale change, but most are fearful of having no answer to the questions like, ‘Are you going to legalise cocaine and heroin?’ It needs wholesale change away from criminal justice, which puts the billion pound drug market into the hands of criminals, to public health regulation … The war on drugs is a failed cliche, but everyone was brought up on the proposition that drugs will kill you.”

The report was drafted by an expert working group including figures in addiction services, health, and policing. The campaign has been backed by 15 standing MPs including shadow ministers Jess Phillips, Alex Sobel and Rachael Maskell.

It also revealed that Black people received 17 percent of cannabis possession cautions in 2017/18 despite only making up 3 percent of the population; with white people receiving only 68 percent of cautions, despite making up 86 percent of the population, according to Ministry of Justice data.

Debonnaire is no longer part of the reform group. The office of the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, did not respond to requests for comment.