Decriminalising drug possession: an idea whose time has come?

by Stephen Tall on August 6, 2011

Drug reform has long been the third rail of British politics. Nine years ago, a newly-elected Tory MP was able to write in The Guardian from the safety of backbench obscurity: ‘I am an instinctive libertarian who abhors state prohibitions and tends to be sceptical of most government action, whether targeted against drug use or anything else.’ It’s hard to imagine David Cameron daring to repeat those words now he occupies Number 10.

Yet the Lib Dems are preparing to move the debate centre-stage by recommending at this year’s autumn federal conference the setting up of an independent inquiry into the decriminalisation of possession of all drugs. The Guardian reports:

Senior Liberal Democrats believe Cameron and the home secretary, Theresa May, could be persuaded to hold an open-minded inquiry into a controversy which divides public, political and medical opinion. The inquiry, the Liberal Democrats said, would look at reforms in Portugal which are said to have reduced problematic drug use through decriminalisation for personal use and investing in treatment centres. The conference motion also calls for the inquiry to “examine heroin maintenance clinics in Switzerland and the Netherlands which have delivered great health benefits for addicts and considerable reductions in drug-related crime”. … The call for the inquiry serves a wider purpose for the Liberal Democrats who need to restore their radical credentials with younger voters alienated by the party’s support for trebling of tuition fees.

The motion states: “Individuals, especially young people, can be damaged both by the imposition of criminal records and a drug habit and that the priority for those addicted to all substances must be health, education and rehabilitation”. The motion also claims the proposal might also produce financial savings to stressed budgets in the Ministry of Justice and act as a return to evidence based policy in the field of drugs, a stance the Liberal Democrats claim Labour rejected by its persistent refusal to take on board official scientific advice to government.

Proposals for drug reform expose divisions within parties at least as much as between them: social liberals are pitched against social conservatives. Suddenly the most anti-government, Tea Party-ist free-marketeer believes state prohibition is vital to stop society going to hell in a handcart. It’s an irony the Economist noted earlier this year:

Drug abuse is driven to a significant extent by fashion. If there’s one thing government has going for it, it’s the ability to make anything unfashionable. This insight into government’s jujitsu-like capability to render the cool uncool should be more obvious to conservatives than to liberals.

The Portgual experiment

The same Economist post points to an article in the Boston Globe highlighting the documented success of Portugal’s drugs policy:

… nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. … new research, published in the British Journal of Criminology, documents just how much things have changed in Portugal. Coauthors Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens report a 63 percent increase in the number of Portuguese drug users in treatment and, shortly after the reforms took hold, a 499 percent increase in the amount of drugs seized — indications, the authors argue, that police officers, freed up from focusing on small-time possession, have been able to target big-time traffickers while drug addicts, no longer in danger of going to prison, have been able to get the help they need. …

Such an ptimistic conclusion is not accepted unanimously, however:

Not everyone agrees with this analysis. The rate of people reporting drug use in Portugal is, in fact, increasing — and some say alarmingly so. Others argue that it’s hard to draw lessons from Portugal’s experiment because the nation increased access to treatment at the same time it decriminalized drugs. Many believe that Portugal’s new focus on treatment — and prevention — may have had as much, if not more, to do with its success than its policy of decriminalization.

What does the public think?

Politicians’ disinclination to look seriously at the issue isn’t perhaps surprising given public attitudes tend towards being socially conservative and anti-reform. In November 2008, the Observer and ICM undertook a major polling exercise on opinion among the public to drugs, and their findings showed:

  • By 73% to 27% the public was against curently legal drugs being legalised/decriminalised;
  • 63% agreed possessions should always result in a jail sentence; and
  • 62% were opposed to decriminalising possession even with the supply of drugs remaining a criminal offence.

The statistics highlight the uphill struggle that remains for drug policy reformers in persuading the public (and by extension the government) that relaxing the laws will prove more effective than continuing to pursue the doomed-to-fail war on drugs.

But that is the role of political leaders: not to follow public opinion, but to shape it. It’s a welcome move that the Lib Dems are pushing policy in a progressive direction. The question is: can we persuade the Conservative part of the Coalition, or indeed the conservative part of Labour, to back the party’s stance?