Liberal Hero of the Week #68: Allan Bell, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero allan bell

Allan Bell

Chief Minister of the Isle of Man
Reason: For encouraging an evidence-based – and local – approach to the ‘war on drugs’.

Two liberal hobby-horses of mine collided this week – but in a good way. I’ll tell you what they are in a minute, but first this report from The Independent explains the context:

The Chief Minister of the Isle of Man has said wants to widen the debate on drugs, by considering decriminalising cannabis on the island. Allan Bell’s comments follow a presentation on the island given by former Westminster drugs adviser Professor David Nutt, who was sacked under Labour after he criticised stricter laws on cannabis. Most recently, Professor Nutt said the number of deaths from so-called legal highs are overestimated, arguing that drugs are often wrongly classified or already outlawed in the UK. During his speech, Professor Nutt suggested that by relaxing laws, the self-governing Crown dependency could become a research hub for exploring the medical benefits of drugs, the Isle of Man Examiner reported.

Accepting the link between cannabis and mental health problems, Mr Bell told reporters it was also important to consider evidence which suggests that it has positive effects on a range of medical conditions. … Mr Bell added: “I’m not saying it should be legalised but that there should be a different approach. I’ve an open mind on this – chanting the long-established mantra that “drugs are bad” is not going to resolve this issue at all. There needs to be fresh debate on how we deal with drug use, including possible decriminalisation. I think we have to consider every approach to take criminality out of drug use. The vast majority of people who do drugs do it recreationally and should not be considered criminals,” he added.

So what are my two hobby-horses? First, a more evidence-driven approach to public policy-making, including on drugs. This means being clear and transparent about the relative harm caused both by drugs that are currently legal (eg, caffeine and alcohol) and illegal (eg, cannabis and heroin) – and some combination of legalisation, regulation and medicalisation applied to how each is licensed.

And secondly, smarter use of trials of public policy to pilot new ideas, including on drugs. Reformers and anti-reformers will always cherry-pick the examples that suit their case. In truth, we don’t know how some of legalisation, regulation and medicalisation of currently illegal drugs would work in the UK. Obviously we can look to those countries where such measures have been tried already and be guided by their experiences. But that doesn’t mean their experiences will automatically translate lock, stock and barrel. Yet all too often public policy is introduced in a hurry and on a whim.

In reality, most public policy is introduced with scant attention to evidence and rolled-out without first being tested. For liberals, rational-scepticism and localism should be natural bedfellows. Let’s look at the evidence and let’s let local areas develop their own evidence-based approaches adapted to their contexts. Good luck to Allan Bell and the Isle of Man in this venture.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.