Obviously, this is the “Brexit election”. Mountains of Brexit. Metric tons of Brexit. All the Brexit you can eat, then more Brexit. This is a shame for many reasons. It’s not like Britain doesn’t have other serious issues to be dealing with – not least the human suffering being wrought by its current approach to drug policy.
In 2017, drug deaths overtook road deaths for the first time. In England and Wales there were 4,359 deaths by drug poisoning last year – the highest since records began, as well as the sharpest increase from one year to another. In Scotland there were 1,187 drug deaths, a 27 percent spike. Scotland now has more drug deaths per capita than the US, in the midst of the North American opioids crisis.
Meanwhile, county lines drug dealing is probably the most acute problem facing British law enforcement. When police are driven to recruiting child spies to infiltrate drugs gangs, you know something has gone seriously wrong.
Drug policy has ramifications across society – affecting criminal justice, health, housing, social cohesion and the broader economy. It seems that finally some political parties are waking up to this. In the run-up to the election several have announced new approaches to drug policy.
We thought we’d drill down and figure out where each party is at with drug policy – and which individual politicians are driving the debate.
If there is a drugs crisis in Britain today, then the Conservative Party owns it. In 2012, they drove through the so-called “Recovery Roadmap”, which involved forcing people off of Opioid Substitution Therapies like methadone, and an emphasis on abstinence over harm reduction. In 2016 they introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act, a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances, apart from big business alcohol and tobacco, of course. The Act led to an explosion of Spice amongst the street homeless, as the “legal high” was forced underground.
So, what are the Tories promising around drug policy in this election? From the looks of it, more of the same. There has been an emphasis on law and order rhetoric, with Home Secretary Priti Patel promising to tackle county lines gangs without specifying how; and pledges to expand the police’s stop and search powers, despite deep concerns over racial bias and how those powers are applied.
Then there is this bizarre statement on tackling Britain’s drug problems released last week that signalled prescription opioid addiction as our most urgent drug problem, which it is not. It also has Health Secretary Matt Hancock talking about “marshalling the resources of the NHS” to combat addiction, which is at odds with the Tories having spent the last 10 years farming out large sections of NHS addiction services to private providers, sacrificing an irreplaceable bank of frontline knowledge and costing thousands of lives.
There is nothing in the manifesto about medical cannabis, despite it being Sajid Javid who was forced to legalise it in 2018 – though only a few people have received private prescriptions. The only real ray of light in Tory drug policy is Crispin Blunt, the Conservative candidate for Reigate, who has led a lonely crusade to move the party forward, forming the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, which sits outside the party. “My concerns around this come from my time as Prisons Minister,” Blunt explains. “It forced me to understand how damaging the prohibition of drugs is on people’s lives. We’re trying to maneuver people towards a more evidence-based policy. And there are hopeful signs – as evidence from around the world emerges on cannabis, I am hopeful we can move things forward here.” As much as one can respect Blunt’s efforts, this optimism does seem to fly in the face of both their decade in power, and the messaging of their campaign in this election so far.
There is sometimes an assumption that Labour is, or perhaps should be, more forward thinking on drug policy than the Tories. Interestingly, this hasn’t always actually been the case. The Misuse of Drugs Act that outlawed drugs in 1971 was originally a Labour bill. When Keir Hardie first founded the party in 1900, one of the key demands was the prohibition of alcohol.
In the modern era, much of Labour’s shyness around drug policy has sprung from the right wing press screaming that the left are “soft on crime” any time these discussions came up. But, the 2019 election campaign seems to mark some significant changes in Labour’s approach.
The manifesto promises to develop a “public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation”. This is a serious shift in the mood music from Labour. However, a concern is the method by which these changes are meant to come about – a Royal Commission. Royal Commissions can take years, and a worry amongst drug policy reformers is that this is a strategy of kicking the issue into the long grass.
While there are no specific promises around concrete harm reduction measures such as drug consumption rooms – though previously Labour have indicated they would support pilot schemes – the manifesto does pledge to reverse the savage cuts made to addiction services made over the past decade of Tory leadership.
It’s a worry that Jeff Smith, Labour Candidate for Manchester Withington – and co-founder of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform – recognises. “A Royal Commission wouldn’t have been my preferred approach, but we need to come at this in a way that brings the public along – especially considering the hostile media around people who use drugs, and the Labour Party generally. But there is a willingness to engage from within the party in a new way though – a recognition of the importance of harm reduction and an evidence led approach.”
The Lib Dems were the first big party to openly come out for drug policy reform, calling for a Royal Commission all the way back in 2012. And with their 2019 Manifesto, they’ve made these demands more concrete and immediate.
The party promises a fully legalised and regulated cannabis market, with age-limits and controls on potency. They would shift drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health and invest more in treatment services. They also offer vaguer promises to “divert people arrested for possession of drugs for personal use into treatment, and imposing civil penalties rather than imprisonment”, which sounds roughly like the decriminalisation model implemented in Portugal. (At its recent conference, the SNP also adopted a motion to decriminalise drugs along this model.) There are no specific commitments to support Harm Reduction efforts like Drug Consumption Rooms – and interestingly. A pledge to repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016 that was in their previous manifesto has now been dropped.
Sir Norman Lamb, who has spearheaded this cause within the Lib Dems explains the thinking behind their current policy: “The current government approach is simply irresponsible – prohibition puts young people at risk. Decriminalisation along the Portuguese model is a step forward, but I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
“Within the party I think it’s fair to say that there’s overwhelming support for the principle. The question is how much you prioritise it in campaigning. There are colleagues whose instinct is to soft peddle this, because the press can tear you apart. But I happen to think this approach is a mistake. We’re an insurgent party and we should go out and make the argument.”
A rare mention of the Green Party in our manifesto round ups. Full disclosure – the Green Party just agreed an entirely new drug policy, and I was part of the working group that drafted it, though I am not a member of the party. This new policy, outlined in a whole section of the manifesto entitled “Ending the War on Drugs”, means the Green manifesto is the only one to explicitly call for the legalisation and regulation of all drugs.
The Green Party would repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and pursue different legal regulatory models for different substances. Addicted heroin users would have their needs addressed through the health system (as used to be the case in the UK), while adults could buy cannabis legally or grow their own for personal use. Drug use would be considered entirely an issue of public health, rather than criminal justice.
What is crucial is that the Greens are not just concerned that drugs are regulated, but that legalisation is pursued in the right way – as an issue of social justice and equity, rather than the creation of a billion pound investment opportunity for hedge funds looking to cash in on the legal weed biz.
Alex Armitage, the Green Candidate in Hackney North was the prime mover behind the formation of the new policy. “I’m a pediatric doctor – and the number of young people who come to harm through current drug policy is shocking,” he explains. “This is an issue of social justice – that is what drives my politics. There’s so much injustice around drug policy. The USP of the Greens is that we’re not afraid of evidence and we’re not afraid of science. If the evidence indicates this is what we should do, we’re morally bound to pursue that policy.”
Confused about which party to vote for in the upcoming general election? Check out VICE's handy primer to all the manifesto policies here.